In very sad news for San Francisco at large, as well as the craft beer community, landmark Potrero Hill brewery Anchor Brewing Co. is shutting down brewing operations and declaring bankruptcy.
We perhaps should have seen it as more of a harbinger of doom last month when Anchor Brewing announced that it was ceasing distribution outside California. That seems to have been part of a larger wind-down plan to quickly cut costs, and early Wednesday the company announced — through hired spokesperson and crisis PR guy Sam Singer — that it is shutting its doors for good, laying off all 61 employees, and filing for bankruptcy.
According to Singer, "This was an extremely difficult decision that Anchor reached only after many months of careful evaluation." And while the employees have been given 60-day notices, the brewery will continue packaging and distribution of beer on hand, while all brewing operations have stopped as of today.
"We recognize the importance and historic significance of Anchor to San Francisco and to the craft brewing industry, but the impacts of the pandemic, inflation, especially in San Francisco, and a highly competitive market left the company with no option but to make this sad decision to cease operations," Singer said in a statement on behalf of the company.
Singer spoke to the Chronicle saying that the company had been "losing millions of dollars a year," both before and after its 2017 acquisition by Japan-based Sapporo. The pandemic worsened the situation for Anchor, which had depended on restaurant distribution for much of its revenue, and that took a big hit.
In a statement, Singer said that multiple attempts had been made in the past year to sell the brand or the brewery to another entity, but none have stepped forward. "It is possible that a buyer will step forward for the brewery as part of the liquidation process," a release states. "It is the hope of the Anchor team that such an outcome comes to fruition," but as of now, any decisions about a sale will be left up to a third-party assignee in a bankruptcy proceeding.
Anchor Steam Beer is an iconic brand rooted in San Francisco — "steam beer" being a type of beermaking originating in Bavaria, using a warm-ferment of lager yeast, and the term has become inextricably linked to West Coast beer and SF in particular. Many in the beer world credit Anchor with being the "first craft beer" in the U.S., with Fritz Maytag's revival of the brand in 1965, and return to old brewing techniques, being an early inspiration for the craft-beer movement.
Maytag, now 85, is an heir to the Maytag appliance fortune, and he has said he was inspired by his own family's policy of using higher-end raw materials to make their products in his approach to brewing high-quality beer.
Beer historians credit Anchor with being the first craft brewery in contemporary times to regularly produce a porter, a barleywine, and an India pale ale.
The brewery was founded in 1896 by Ernst F. Baruth and his son-in-law, Otto Schinkel, Jr., and the original operation was at 1431 Pacific Avenue. Anchor Brewing's facilities at 1705 Mariposa Street date back to the 1930s, after the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the original brewery and another fire destroyed a Harrison Street facility as well. Beermaking might have been going on quietly during Prohibition — though "no record" of this officially exists — and Anchor "resumed" operations in Potrero Hill in 1934. In 1959, Anchor shut down again — and this was billed as its permanent end. (The Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub has a good history of the brewery here.)
The heyday of Anchor may have been in the 1980s and 90s, when the craft-beer market wasn't quite so crowded, though the beer — and the Potrero taproom — has plenty of local and national fans. In perhaps a sign of growing desperation within the company, the longtime, recognizable labels were jettisoned in favor of a slick rebranding in early 2021 that was not well received on social media.
"Anchor has invested great passion and significant resources into the company,” Singer said in his statement. “Unfortunately, today’s economic pressures have made the business no longer sustainable, and we had to make the heartbreaking decision to cease operations."
To see this iconic brand disappear likely pains many in the craft beer community — though its future may be just as a small side line of beer recipes produced by another local company.
The impressive, historic brewery with its huge copper kettles would also likely be attractive for a buyer with deep pockets and a passion for beer history.
And not to be Pollyannaish, but Anchor has closed its doors before and lived on, several times in the last century plus, so maybe not all hope is lost. Maytag bought the brewery during troubled economic times, and he ultimately sold it in 2010.
Anybody want to buy a brewery?