RIP Anchor Brewing: Sapporo Is Shutting Down the Original American Craft Brewery

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RIP Anchor Brewing: Sapporo Is Shutting Down the Original American Craft Brewery

It’s a headline that the savvy beer geeks and industry watchers had been dreading but expecting for several years now, and it’s finally here: The original American craft brewery is being shut down. Anchor Brewing Co., the influential modern incarnation of a company stretching all the way back to 1896, purchased and saved from the brink of extinction by Frederick Louis “Fritz” Maytag III in 1965, has presumably brewed its very last batch of steam beer. It’s yet another victim of the dire economic straits facing the brewing industry, but has simultaneously been a victim of poor management and half-hearted attempts to revive its brands at the hands of its multinational corporate ownership at Japanese megabrewer Sapporo. In the 13 years since Maytag sold the brand in 2010, it’s safe to say that Anchor has slowly but surely been run into a position that was truly untenable.

The brewery announced its closure in a furtive press release, hitting the wire at 1:45 a.m. last night, announcing that brewing operations had ceased and that the business would be liquidated. Staff were given their 60-day notices, and will receive “transition support and separation packages.” Local fans wanting to give a last hurrah to the brewery will want to head to its Anchor Public Taps taproom on De Haro Street, which is remaining open temporarily to sell through remaining stock. In a statement, Anchor Brewing spokesperson Sam Singer said the following:

“This was an extremely difficult decision that Anchor reached only after many months of careful evaluation. 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.”

Things seemed sustainable for Anchor at first, following the brewery’s 2010 sale from an exiting Maytag to Skyy Vodka execs Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio. In the years that followed, the company released new flagship producs such as Anchor California Lager, and greatly expanded production. But this growth was likely a mirage, a factor of the shared growth that was being experienced through the first half of the 2010s by almost every brewing outfit as awareness of American craft beer rapidly spread. In 2017, the brewery was sold to Sapporo, and from this point on the challenges increased and cracks began to show on the walls. In 2019, the brewery was caught in the center of a contentious fight with its own employees after opposing their drive to unionize, casting itself as a local villain in its San Francisco home base. By 2021, the struggles were clearly apparent and Sapporo decided to completely revamp the branding of Anchor Brewing and its flagship Anchor Steam, casting aside the iconic, weathered labels for colorful, simplified, modern ones that were widely reviled by fans as the product of soulless corporate thinking. And finally, just last month the brewery announced it was ceasing production of its classic, annual Christmas Ale, which had been produced every year since 1975.

This rebrand was not exactly met with enthusiasm.

Of course, none of it would have been possible without Maytag effectively bringing Anchor Brewing–a company with a bad reputation when he acquired it in 1965–effectively back from the dead. In the years that followed, the industry pioneer would revamp the trademark Steam Beer into a persistent company flagship, as well as introduce some of the first modern commercial examples of beer styles including Porter (1972), barleywine (1975) and pale ale/IPA (1975). The latter, Anchor Liberty Ale, should rightly be regarded as one of the most influential beers in American history, one of the first hop-forward brands showcasing the flavors of American hop varietals, a full five years before Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would first arrive in 1980. Think of it: The entire American IPA obsession of the last 20 years can trace a large degree of its inspiration to Anchor Liberty Ale. And that beer is soon to be gone forever.

It seems likely that some degree of Sapporo’s willingness to kill the brand can be traced to their 2022 acquisition of a significantly larger and more robust, modern beer entity: Fellow California craft brewer Stone Brewing. Since that time, Sapporo has increasingly used Stone facilities to brew products such as rice lager, but facilities like the iconic Anchor Brewing building on Potrero Hill in San Francisco–the site of the brewery since 1979–were much less suited to these sorts of tasks. A more truthful assessment may be that Sapporo simply never knew quite what to do with Anchor in the first place, simply wanting to possess an iconic brand without understanding the needs of the company behind it.

There is still some slim hope that the Anchor brand could theoretically be saved, if a buyer were to emerge from the ether during the brewery’s liquidation process, but the failure to find a buyer over the course of the last year points to the odds of this being quite slim. At a time when regional brewing entities are being devastated by economic headwinds, changing tastes and competition from more nimble, tiny breweries, it’s hard to imagine who would want to take on the burden of reviving Anchor, after this latest blow. But for Maytag’s sake, maybe some angel investor would like to try. As is, this is an ignominious end for Anchor Brewing, after 127 proud years.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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