NOTE: This review was originally published on a now-defunct food & wine website called Eat. Drink. Repeat. on January 29th, 2008.
I travel a great deal for business, and I rarely do anything for myself on these trips. I often see exotic locations (or at least those that seem exotic to others) and hear: "Oh wow! Did you do anything fun?" Almost without fail, the answer is no.
I decided to change that on a recent trip to San Francisco. I decided to take the Anchor Brewery Tour. Lore has it that this is a very difficult thing to accomplish. A friend of mine (a frothing-at-the-mouth, last-meal-would-be-only-beer fanatic) called and arranged his tour at the Anchor Brewery four months in advance. His only description of the tour after the fact was: "Heavenly." I now know what he means.
I was staying downtown for a conference and had an afternoon free up due to some canceled meetings. On a whim, I called two days in advance and they said they could squeeze me in. That didn't seem so hard, I thought. I later discovered that most of the people on my tour had, like my friend, arranged their visits months in advance...I was lucky.
The brewery is in an old coffee roastery, and the tour begins in the tasting room - essentially a small bar in the brewery. The tasting room is filled with memorabilia from Anchor's past as well as old San Francisco history. It was a treat to show up a little early and have the chance to peruse everything there. Our tour began with the guide, one of the brewers, a 20-something woman, telling us about the history of beer in San Francisco. I found it fascinating that lacking artificial refrigeration, they couldn't accomplish brewing in the constantly mild temperatures of San Francisco in a way they were accustomed to from their European homelands where temps would get quite cool. Lager beer requires temps below the 60oF averages of SanFran, so the brew masters of old would ferment the beer in very shallow vats on the rooftops to get maximum cooling and fermentation of the lager yeast. But, that would make the beer flat. They would then package the (flat) beer in barrels and add some still active yeast to the barrel, which would naturally carbonate the beer. When the bartenders would tap a barrel, the built up pressure would spew out foam and mist that looked like steam. Thus, the nickname for beer as a 'steam' was born.
The tour was great. I was stunned to find out that Anchor makes less than 100,000 barrels of beer a year. That's really quite small! For comparison, Sierra Nevada, which you often see next to Anchor on grocery store shelves, produces close to a million barrels a year - 10 times as many as Anchor. But Anchor prefers its role as a small, craft brewer. About 80% of Anchor production is their only lager, the Steam, and its still brewed in the same fashion as back in the old days - in shallow vats that makes it go flat, and then bottled with a bit of active yeast to provide the carbonation. All the rest of Anchor beers are ales, notably Liberty, which is pure magic in a bottle. We had the opportunity to stop by and sniff the hops storage room, and I wished I could take a handful with me. We saw the bottling line and learned that the employees get to take home any of the bottles that are not up to quality control (bad labels, scratches, etc). Oh, and they get to have beer after being on the job for 4 hours (!). I assume that it would not be considered acceptable to get drunk while working, but if you want to sip a Steam while cleaning up your area, that's just fine with the management.
After the tour, which lasted about an hour, we ended in the tasting room. They had six beers on tap: Steam, Liberty, Summer, Old Foghorn, Christmas, and Porter. The Steam and Liberty were magic, pure magic. Later that evening I was stunned to have a Steam at a local restaurant and it tasted totally different - the beer is fresh and the lines are pristine at the brewery! I love their Summer but it seemed wrong to be drinking such a light, floral beer in the winter. Old Foghorn is a barleywine-style ale, very high alcohol, and it was delicious, but a bit much after about half a glass. The Porter was spectacular, and the Christmas, was, well, one of those spicy, funky holiday winter brews that are not my favorites. After tasting all of them, I put down a shocking amount of the Liberty before our hour tasking was up. During that time our sedate tour group turned into a raucous bunch that was joined by about half a dozen of the brewery employees who had just finished their shift. It was a GREAT time.
For anybody that truly loves beer, I urge you to take this tour. Anchor is one of the few small, family owned craft brewers left in America - a special, special thing.
Anchor Brewing Company
1705 Mariposa Street
San Francisco, CA 94107