Amazing Beer Tap Handles: Tap Handle #339: Anchor – Christmas Ale

This tap was a gift from a friend. It’s not very figural, featuring a tiny anchor on the top of the tap, but it’s a gift, it’s nautical, and Anchor’s rich history is a good read. The timing is prefect, as I just returned from 4 days in California, where I attended my company’s corporate holiday party. With stops in several places, from Santa Cruz to San Jose and San Francisco, it seemed that every single bar or restaurant was serving Anchor. One of my friends, a local employee from corporate, didn’t hesitate in ordering the lager while we ate at a restaurant at the Santa Cruz pier. I did not try it myself, although I’d like to give the Christmas Ale a taste.

Anchor was founded in 1871 in San Francisco, California by Gottlieb Brekle. A German immigrant and brewer, Brekle arrived in San Francisco in 1849 with his family during the gold rush. He bought an old beer-and-billiards saloon for $3,500 and converted it to a brewery. German brewer Ernst F. Baruth and his son-in-law, Otto Schinkel, Jr., bought the brewery and named it Anchor. In 1906, Baruth died suddenly, and two months later the devastating fire following San Francisco’s great earthquake consumed Anchor Brewery. In 1907, just as Anchor Brewery was opening at its new location Schinkel was run over by a streetcar. German brewers Joseph Kraus and August Meyer, along with liquor store owner Henry Tietjen, were able to keep the brewery going.

Prohibition shut Anchor down in 1920. The brewery sat idle until Prohibition ended in 1933, when Kraus re-opened Anchor as the last Steam Beer producer (also called California common beer). The newly re-opened brewery went up in smoke the following year. He re-opened Anchor in an old brick building with a new partner, Joe Allen, close to its current location. Kraus and Allen valiantly kept Anchor afloat until Kraus’s death in 1952. By late 1959, America’s new-found taste for mass-produced, heavily marketed lighter beers had taken its toll on Anchor’s already declining sales. Allen shut Anchor down for a brief period, until Lawrence Steese bought and re-opened Anchor in 1960 at yet another nearby location, retaining Allen to carry Anchor’s brewing tradition forward. But Steese had an increasingly difficult time convincing loyal Bay Area establishments to continue serving Anchor Steam, as he lacked the expertise and attention to cleanliness that are required to produce consistent batches of beer for commercial consumption. By 1965 the brewery had a deserved reputation for producing sour, bad beer, and Steese was ready to shut Anchor down.

A young Stanford grad named Fritz Maytag learned that the makers of his favorite beer were soon to close their doors forever. Despite its primitive equipment and financial condition, Fritz rushed to buy 51% of the historic little San Francisco brewery for a few thousand dollars, rescuing Anchor from imminent bankruptcy. He later purchased the company outright, and had to learn the brewing process from scratch, invest in improvements to the equipment, and focus heavily on cleanliness in the brewing process. In 1971, 100 years after the founding of the brewery, Maytag began bottling Anchor Steam Beer. By 1975, Anchor had produced four other distinctive beers: Anchor Porter, Liberty Ale, Old Foghorn Barleywine Ale, and the first annual Christmas Ale. Although the terms “microbrewing” and “craft brewing” had yet to be coined, Anchor was at that time fitting the description (which is why it now calls itself America’s first craft brewery), and inspired many other craft brewers. By 1977, Anchor had five products, a dozen employees and had nearly outgrown its most recent brewery. After a long search, Maytag purchased an old coffee roastery, built in 1937, which is its current location.

In 1984, Anchor celebrated its fifth anniversary at its new home by brewing a special wheat beer, the first wheat beer in America since Prohibition, and now known as Anchor Summer Beer. In 1989, Anchor developed its Sumerian Beer Project and Ninkasi, a beer made according to a 4,000 year old recipe. Later that same year, the Brewery was rocked but not damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1993, Anchor Brewing became the first brewery in the world with its own in-house distillery. In 2010 Maytag retired and sold the brewery to former Skyy vodka executives Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio. In 2013, Anchor announced they will occupy what is now Pier 48 with production and distribution facilities, a restaurant, museum and other public attractions. The 212,000-square-foot space is an addition to Anchor Brewing’s existing plant, and will quintuple the company’s output from 120,000 to 600,000 barrels a year.  Construction is expected to begin in late 2014, and Anchor Steam could be on tap there by the end of 2016. Anchor currently brews 12 varieties, including 8 core beers and 4 seasonals.

Anchor Christmas Ale is a spiced herbal ale with ingredients that the brewery keeps a secret. Since 1975, Anchor has brewed Christmas Ale; the recipe is different every year, as is the tree on the label. Properly refrigerated, the beer remains intriguing and drinkable for years. Different nuances emerge as the flavor mellows slightly, much like the memories of great holiday seasons past. Weighted average on is 3.55 out of 5.

Anchor Brewing Official Website

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Anchor Brewing Website

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