a piss up in a brewery, Anchor BreweryThe title of this post comes from a classic English saying to describe someone useless: “He couldn’t organize a piss-up* in a brewery.” Luckily, we know a man who CAN organize a piss-up in a brewery. Last night we went to one. And what a brewery! Andy’s life-long mate, Keith, has now become one of the owners and CEO of San Francisco’s famous Anchor Brewery. The story of Anchor Brewery and its iconic “steam” beer is the stuff of San Francisco — and beer-drinking — legend. You’ll find the story on the Anchor site, but here are the highlights:

  • Founded in the 1800s, Anchor weathered tragic deaths, earthquakes, fires and Prohibition to produce its handmade, craft “steam” beer in several locations within San Francisco.
  • In the Sixties, just as America’s tastes for mass-produced light beer were about to close Anchor’s doors, Fritz Maytag — of the washing machine Maytags — who was then a Stanford student, bought the brewery determined to keep producing its iconic beer. Thus was born the craft beer/micro-brew tradition. (Thanks, Fritz!)
  • Steam beer is brewed using a different method than most modern beers. It was explained to me. I can’t remember it. Just think total hand-crafting, attention to quality details and lovely copper vats from the turn of the century.
Anchor Steam Beer

San Francisco's iconic beer since 1896!

So back to that piss-up. Keith’s only been on board for a scant four months, so Anchor Brewery’s annual Christmas party was a pretty exciting event for him. Anyone who is anyone is there. Well, lots of people who like really, really good beer are there. We were there! Because Andy and Keith go way back to the diving club at University back in England. Little did they think, back then, that they would find themselves on two ends of the drinks spectrum. Especially since Keith was getting his Masters in Structural Engineering and majoring in Concrete or something. And Andy was going for his in Electrical Engineering and looking to get to Silicon Valley. But here we are with a winery and a brewery between us. Parties at breweries are probably more fun, but Andy’s built a re-creation of a traditional English pub in our basement, so we might still claim to have an edge. In any case, they’re probably having more fun than they ever did with concrete and silicon.

I wish I could share how special this brewery is, but, unfortunately, I only had my point-and-shoot, and I was balancing a plate of buttermilk fried chicken and a glass of Anchor Steam while I tried to shoot. I also wasn’t able to gather many key facts as Andy was networking like mad. Sure, Keith’s his lifelong buddy, but Andy’s not going to count on that as his only “anchor”, as it were. Within an hour, he’d gotten matey with everyone from the Master Brewer to the lab woman who builds the Christmas tree out of beer boxes and bottles every year, to the guys behind the hand pumps. Just in case. Andy’s not going to risk not being invited to this event annually.

But here are some photographic highlights. And if you are in San Francisco, or plan to be here anytime soon, know that Anchor Brewery gives tours with tastings. So stop by and wave Hi to our mate Keef. He’s the guy in the office just off the room with the big copper tanks. The office with the stuffed ferret with a beer bottle in its mouth. (Don’t ask. Those Drinks People, they’re just a different breed.)

Andy on tour at Anchor Brewery

The nice young man in the middle is Eric, one of the tour guides. He's very knowledgeable but Andy wouldn't let him get a word in edgewise. If you take the tour, you might want to listen to him. Eric, that is, not Andy.

fermenting vats at Anchor Brewery

These swimming pool sized shallow fermenting vats are one of the secrets of the steam beer brewing process. I suggested they might also be used for spa treatments.

system controls at Anchor Brewery

All the system controls are delightfully Old School. Old School like Lt. Uhuru's communications board in Star Trek.

The one factoid I did manage to retain: most brewers, even craft brewers, use the inferior but easier to store compressed hops pellets.

hops room at Anchor Brewery

Not Anchor! Only whole leaf hops for these folks.

If you take the tour, you’ll be amazed to see that every aspect of the brewing process is done in this one historic building — from brewing to fermenting to bottling. There are so many levels and so many conveyor belts in the place, you expect to see small armies of Oompah Loompahs running around.

In fact our friend Rob paid Keef the highest complement of the evening: “Sir, you ARE Willie Wonka.” That would be Willie Wonka for adults.

*For my non-British audience, a piss-up means a loud drinking party.