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Anchors up and away

Looking back at when Anchor Steam headed to the U.K.

The mystique of San Francisco's Anchor Steam Beer is finally to be uncorked for British drinkers. Anchor Steam is being marketed in Britain, initially in bottles at the retail warehouses of the Majestic Wine chain. Soon, it may appear on draught in the odd pub.

In the dullest days of American beer, and even before CAMRA lit the torches of a new dawn in Britain, the distant Anchor Steam presented its own flickering beacon of hope. There were only two or three distinctive beers in the United States, and Anchor Steam was the most unusual among them, when the brewery misunderstood and failing was bought by one of its customers in the late 1960s.

The story has become a folk tale, as well it might. How often does a customer buy a company to save a product from extinction? What more important product than beer could inspire such boldness? The yarn of Fritz and the Brewery is often spun. Every society knows instinctively that it must pass on its lore to each new generation, so that they may understand the travails and achievements of humankind.

Fritz Maytag comes from Iowa, a state where Swiss and Germans farm cattle produce dairying equipment and make household appliances. The Maytag family make a blue cheese, and own a company producing washing machines. The latter product has made them, in both senses, household name.

It was as a student in California that Fritz Maytag came across Anchor Steam Beer, then discovered hat the brewery was about to close. He called by for one last look, and finished up selling his shares in the washtub company to buy a mash tun and kettle.

Cynics argue that Maytag could afford such whims, but that argument fails to see his vision. Nobody in America or Britain was buying small breweries in the 1960s. Not to keep them open, anyway. Even less did anyone believe in craft-made, speciality beers at that time. Maytag looked neither an entrepreneur nor a gambler. He appeared to be a crackpot, throwing away his birthright.

When he bought the brewery, it was under the arches of an urban motorway, fermenting its beer with baker's yeast, and selling only on draught, in a handful of outlets, most of them hard to find. In a decade, he clawed back enough cash to buy a beautiful copper brewbouse and install it in an elegant, 1930s building, that was formerly a coffee warehouse.

Anchor Steam is visibly proud of its home, one of the most handsome small breweries in the world (it is about a third the size of Young's). For visitors to San Francisco, it takes no more than a phone call to arrange a tour of the brewery, with a generous finale in the sample room, which takes the form of a small tavern without a cash register.

Among the cognoscenti, Anchor Steam's reputation has spread across the United States. Like the lost beer of Atlantis, it has long been known, if only by reputation, to beer-lovers in Britain. Now, there is the opportunity to taste the stuff.

As an all-malt beer, hand-made (the entire company has a staff of less than 30), Anchor Steam is expensive even in the United States. Since the company is hardly likely to enter a licensing agreement, the Anchor Steam being sold in Britain is a genuine import.

The price of Anchor Steam may make it a Yuppie beer, though this is a prospect about which Maytag will have mixed feelings. Much as he wants to sell his product at a profit, and at a deservedly premium price, he has publicly criticised the notion of "elite" beers.

His family may make a rare cheese, and he may grow fine wine grapes and olives on his own vineyard, but Maytag likes beer to be for everyone. CAMRA would undoubtedly agree with that, but I take a more cautious view.

To the American who has tasted nothing but Budweiser, a sampling of Anchor Steam can be a shock. To Jack the Lad with his Union Jack vest and can of Ersatzenbrau Lager Anchor Steam might seem dangerously like a Bitter. On the other hand, it might appear relatively tame to a real ale drinker weaned on Fuller's ESB.

It is in a style produced when lager-brewing began to spread in the United States, in the mid and late 1800s. In the Mid-West, lager brewers could cool their fermentation and maturation vessels with ice from the Great Lakes. As California was settled, during the Gold Rush, no such facility existed.

Brewers there used lager yeasts, but fermented at warm temperatures as if they were making ale. They employed distinctively wide, shallow, fermenting vessels much the same as Continental brewers' cool ships to bring down the temperature. Their beer was casked without being lagered, and in consequence was very lively. It is said that the casks "steamed" with C02 when they were tapped.

The method was used only in the United States, to which the style is unique, and Anchor Steam Beer is the only surviving example. It has an o.g of 1051, the cleanness of an all-malt lager, but the fruitiness of an ale. Anchor also hops its brews pretty heftily.

For the moment, Anchor is importing only its Steam Beer, its original product. The brewery also produces a light, honeyish, Wheat Beer; an intense, dry-hopped, Liberty Ale; a rich, profound Porter; an immense Barley Wine; and a highly characterful Christmas special each year.

Published Online: APR 23, 2001
Published in Print: AUG 1, 1988
In: What's Brewing

- Beer Review - Brewery Review - Historical

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