Anchor Steam Brewery Tour

What could be more fun and more interesting than a microbrewery tour? Add free beer tasting in a memorabilia-filled taproom and you have a great way to spend a couple of hours. And, as an added bonus, the brewery is a true San Francisco icon with a long and interesting history.

When you think of San Francisco icons, the first things that come to mind are cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge, but we have world famous food and drink too: Ghiradelli chocolate, Boudin sourdough, Irish coffee, and, of course, Anchor Steam beer. Nothing says San Francisco more than Anchor Steam.

01) Label (Z-15-937)


Anchor Steam is, and always has been brewed right here in the city. It’s our original microbrew. The brewery conducts free tours every morning and afternoon from Monday through Friday and the tour includes a tasting session where you get six 4-ounce samples of their lagers and ales. The tour is informative, interesting, free, and fun, but you need to sign-up weeks or months in advance, because it’s also hugely popular.


02) Grain & Hops (Z-15-960)03) Mash Vat (Z-15-947)05) Daniel at Bar (Z-15-962)06) Sample (Z-15-963)

The Tour

The tour takes about two hours and begins in the taproom. For the first 20 minutes or so the guide gives a brief history of the brewery, describes each of Anchor Steam’s ten brews, shows the beer making ingredients, and explains how they are used to make different kinds of lager and ale. There are only four ingredients: grain (barley and, in some cases, wheat), hops, yeast, and water, and, luckily for Anchor Steam, San Francisco tap water comes directly from Hetch Hetchy Valley in the high Sierras, and it’s perfect for brewing.


Next, the guide leads you on a short tour of the brewery beginning in the copper brewhouse. Here water and grain are mixed into mash, the mash is filtered into wort, hops are added, the wort is cooked and cooled, and then pumped into enormous steel vats where yeast is added and fermentation begins. After 72 hours, the partially fermented liquid is pumped to the cellar where the beer goes into large tanks for the second fermentation stage (photo 4), and finally, after about 28 days, the brew goes to the bottling and labeling area. According to Daniel, our tour guide, they produce 165,000 bottles a day.


After the brewery tour, you return to the taproom where your guide answers questions and pours 4-ounce samples of six different Anchor Steam brews. The brews sampled vary by season. On our tour, we sampled Christmas 2011, Anchor Steam, Liberty Ale, Brekle's Brown, Anchor Porter Ale, and Old Foghorn Barleywine. The Porter Ale is similar to Guinness. The Christmas 2011 was a nice refreshing lager and was hands-down my favorite.

The operative word during the brew sampling is that the samples are “offered.” You don’t have to accept them. They lend you a glass, which you take to the bar to be filled. No one cares if you sample any or all of the brews or if you ask for just half a glass. Most of Anchor’s brews are 5-6% alcohol, so six 4-ounce glasses (24 ounces) equal two pretty stiff drinks. It’s enough to give you a buzz — or so I’ve heard.


                                                                         Brekle's Brown Ale »»»»


In 1896, brewer Ernst F. Baruth and his son-in-law, Otto Schinkel Jr., purchased the Golden City Brewery located on Russian Hill at Pacific and Larkin. No one seems to know why Ernst and Otto chose the name Anchor, but they promptly renamed it Anchor Brewery. The beer they produced was called steam beer because of the method used to cool the cooked wort. In the 1800s, there was neither refrigeration nor ice in San Francisco, so the hot wort was pumped into tanks on the brewery roof to cool. As is cooled, steam rose from the tanks — beer cooled this way was called steam beer.

For a few years, things went well for Ernst and Otto, but beginning in1906, it all went terribly wrong. In February, Ernst died suddenly; in April the great earthquake and fire destroyed the brewery. The following January, while working to rebuild the brewery, Otto fell from a cable car and was run over and crushed to death. It’s hard to imagine how a business could survive having both owners die and the factory burned to the ground, but the brewery’s employees managed to rebuild and kept the brewery going until 1920 when prohibition brought all legal production to an end. Mysteriously, Anchor Steam was able to quickly resume production immediately after prohibition ended in 1933, and some suspect that it surreptitiously continued to produce beer during prohibition.

07) Original Brewery (Z-15-967)

Although it struggled, Anchor Steam survived through the 1950’s, but its market share dwindled when the major American breweries began shipping beer around the country and the citizenry developed a taste for lighter beers. By the mid 1960s, Anchor Steam was in trouble, and, luckily, it was purchased in 1965, by Fritz Maytag. As an heir to the Maytag Corporation, he had resources, and as a scientist he knew how to make beer that was consistently good. He made improvements in the equipment and process and made the brewery successful again. He revived Anchor Steam and inspired other brewers to do the same; he is rightly called the “father of modern microbreweries.”


The brewery is located on Potrero Hill at Mariposa and De Haro. There are three bus lines that stop within a block of the brewery (#s 10, 19, and 22), and since parking is limited and drinking and driving is not recommended, it’s best if you get there by bus (or taxi).

I highly recommend this fun, interesting, and informative tour. Just remember this tour is very popular and you must make reservations weeks or months in advance.


© Virginia E. Vail 2012