Out of the 8,000-plus breweries in America today, there aren’t many that can say they survived Prohibition. Chief among that small group (and the even smaller group that could be considered “craft breweries”) is Anchor Brewing out of San Francisco, CA. This year they celebrate 125 years in operation. Think about that for a second: World War I, Prohibition, World War II, the moon landing, the first Black president — all these have come and gone and Anchor Brewing is still here.
Long defined by its traditional hand-drawn art on bulbous brown bottles, 2021 also marks a new direction with branding for Anchor — and one that produced mixed results initially. But it still feels authentic to Anchor, and rebranding an icon always comes with a sense of loss for how much we didn’t appreciate how unique and genuine what we just lost truly was.
Since 1896 Anchor Brewing has pioneered an endless list of innovations and American firsts in craft beer. From brewing the first modern American IPA in 1975 (even though Liberty Ale wasn’t labeled as such) to reintroducing dry-hopping to America to bringing open-fermentation stateside to keeping steam beer alive to producing the best Christmas beer-drinking tradition we have. These are just a few of the monumental achievements we can place at the feet of Anchor, a lot of which are due to owner Fritz Maytag who owned Anchor and revitalized it from 1965 to 2010.
To get some insight into the past 125 years of Anchor and the brewery’s future, we chatted with Anchor brewmaster Tom Riley and pilot brewer Dane Volek.
GP: Tom, you're one of, if not the longest-standing employee. How much did you get to interact with Fritz Maytag, before he sold Anchor?
Tom Riley: Quite a bit as I was here for about 25 years with him. I was around him a lot and saw how he acted and how he approached the company and how he felt about the company and what we were doing. He used to have group meetings in the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s, and talk about how competitive the brewing industry was, and how unique we were — he always had incredible foresight. Because you look back at those days and they were not nearly as competitive as they are now. But part of the reason I think I have the job I have now is because I understand his vision, and I understand how important these beers are, especially our core beers to preserve.
GP: How does his legacy still come through at Anchor?
Tom: People like me understand how important preserving the beers are, but also our ownership understands that both of our previous owners really respected the story of Anchor and understood how important it was to preserve the story and preserve the beer to go with the story. So that really the story is in the bottle.
Dane: Anchor has always been (it's been 13 years for myself) a very culture-rich environment. And I think that there's a lot to be said for the joy that people across the spectrum everywhere in the company. At this point, we're far enough along that not a lot of us had interactions with Fritz, but I think that legacy has carried on and continues into the future on the foundation from Fritz acquiring the brewery.
GP: Dane, your job is specifically to innovate. How do you balance innovation with all of that heritage and legacy, specifically with these three new beers (Tropical Hazy, Crisp Pilsner and Little Weekend)?
Dane: Having originally been a home brewer, something that I still ask myself every day is how do I compare [Anchor's tasting room] Public Taps pilot system to the system that we have at the main brewhouse? And how am I making things different or similar? That's been the really interesting portion of my job. The three new beers were really a cool thing that we knew was coming for a long time. And so we kind of got lean and mean and worked on and it was really exciting to undertake that process for the first time of really scaling up three beers that we found, were foundational for people that we serve here at Public Taps and we thought served a wider audience and we wanted to really take that to the market.
GP: How difficult was that decision to break a tradition that consumers cherished with the branding and modernize?
Tom: A lot of companies go through rebranding. It had been in the works and they thought it would be a good time to kind of look forward. We've come 125 years, but we really need to plot our course for the next 125 years. And we need to bring in new consumers. A lot of thought went into it and a lot of respect went into it. We consulted closely with our historian Dave Burkhart, who has been an Anchor for 30 years and really became a very close friend of Fritz Maytag. I don't know if Fritz gave a stamp of approval, but Dave did. And they pored through Anchor archives and looked at different branding all the way through the 1900s and came up with a really iconic San Francisco maritime anchor. And I to have say, it has really grown on me. I think it's appropriate and I think it stands out more on the shelf.
GP: Will the traditional hand-drawn labels still adorn Anchor Christmas Ale? Or is there something different in the works for that?
Tom: Oh, yeah. We'll keep the feel of that label and how it looks on the Christmas Ale.
GP: Public Taps has become a mainstay in the San Francisco beer scene. Anchor obviously has a very wide distribution to lean on that a lot of smaller craft breweries don't. How has the lockdown impacted how you're running that system?
Dane: I think we really tried to make some lemonade out of the situation. I became a better brewer personally, just because I was then able to push my system in a different direction. Before COVID the push for my system at Public Taps was how much beer can you possibly make? And then during COVID, it was, Well, can we make a little bit less beer and make it even better? So we were able to take a much more granular approach and say with a very strong intention we want to make this beer. The biggest thing that stands out to me is that moment where we realized this could be our chance to take some things we've learned at Public Taps and scale that up to the full-size brewhouse. Pilsner is such a great example of a beer that's so classic and so shockingly difficult to make really well. It really is a yardstick to measure so many breweries against them. So it was a ton of fun to take the focus away from velocity and a little bit more towards investing in the people that we have and investing in learning that process.
Tom: I could just add that the timing was such that our new beers hadn't come out yet. So we got to get Dane over here in the big brewhouse with the brewers perfecting the scaling-up process of Pilsner, Little Weekend and Tropical Hazy. So we had the benefit of having Dane coaching the brewers because it's not just the increasing all the ingredients and it's all going to be the same — it doesn't work like that.
GP: Dry-hopping is such a big part of American craft beer today. I'm curious if you know the story behind how Fritz decided to implement that in Liberty Ale.
Tom: I don't know if I could speak to his thought process but I've always felt like, once Fritz rescued steam beer he immersed himself into brewing and brewing history and going to Europe. He learned about dry-hopped ales and came back and said, I'm going to make a dry-hopped pale ale. And the same was the case for the dark beer, porter. Because when he bought the brewery, they were making Steam Beer and Steam Beer Dark. And Steam Beer Dark was Steam Beer with caramel coloring in it. And he said, Well, I'm not going to do that, I'm going to make something classic. And at the time, porters weren't even being made in England anymore and they weren't being made here. He basically rescued that style, too.
GP: What do you each think is the biggest contribution to American craft beer that Anchor has provided over the years?
Dane: I think passion is the first word that comes to mind.
Tom: I think [Fritz's] foresight was incredible. And when I talk about picking things from history, nobody was doing those things. And nobody cared about them, nobody was thinking about them. And the contribution of preserving steam beer because nobody would have steam beer anywhere in the world now if he didn't preserve it. And then I think Liberty Ale is probably the next, if not the most significant beer because he brought dry-hopping back to the US. You have a lot of the most famous brewers in the country, Vinny from Russian River will say Liberty Ale is what got him interested in this style of beer. Ken Grossman [of Sierra Nevada] also. So those are enormous contributions.
GP: What do you think the American beer drinker is looking for these days?
Dane: That's definitely the million-dollar question. I think they're looking for excellence. When you look at the data even in 2020, brewery numbers actually still increased. There are so many ways that you could have bet against things. I think people are just expecting that they won't have to go far, they won't have to try hard and they're going to find something that's crafted by hands that's amazingly delicious. I mean, it's such a golden age, it really is amazing in so many ways.
Tom: You know, there's a lot going on. The educated beer drinker and the beer fan set is just expanding more and more. There are tons of people making fantastic beer.
GP: What do you both like about the state of craft beer in America right now?
Tom: Circle back to what Dane said: there's tons of great beer available. I think one of the things that Dane and I and others on the brewing team really love is our classic recipes. We all understand those need to stay the same and they're all great in their own right. But we drink other beers, too. We drink hazy beers, we drink good pilsners. So we like branching out and making new things and exploring these and trying to make them the best that they can. Because we're beer fans too when it comes down to it.
Dane: I think that beer is as exciting as it always has been, but it's so much more accessible in a certain way now because of increased awareness and increased density of breweries. We're even seeing a lot of ingredient explosion where craft malting is taking hold now. And you're having a little bit more success for regional malters or specialty malters. It's just really exploring this ancient technology that is so human in so many ways. And it's continued for 10,000 years or more at this point and we're still sort of exploring. It's giving us the opportunity to still explore the same concept of what does community mean? What does creation mean? And what is it what does it mean to have a society where we can all get together and have a place to commune. It's an amazing place to be.