Global brewers are destroying brewing heritage
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Global brewers are hell-bent on destroying great beers and breweries. In Britain, Heineken has closed the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh on the grounds that the historic site needed investment, at the same time as it’s spent millions launching a new “Spanish” lager brewed in Manchester.
Carlsberg Marston’s has closed Jennings in Cumbria and has now added Ringwood in Hampshire to the bonfire of the insanities.
The massacre is not confined to this country. In the United States, the Japanese giant Sapporo has closed the Anchor brewery in San Francisco. Iconic is an over-used and abused term, but it’s a fitting description of Anchor that helped kick-start the American beer revolution in the 1960s.
The Anchor brewery is 127 years old and dates from the time of the California Gold Rush. Prospectors poured into San Francisco and when they weren’t digging for gold they went to bars where they demanded the refreshing lager beers they’d found on the East Coast.
But San Francisco at the time was a poor, mainly Mexican town without ice or refrigeration. Brewers responded by obtaining supplies of lager yeast which they used to produce beer but at warm temperatures. The result was Steam Beer, so called because kegs were heavily carbonated and when they were tapped in bars the escaping gas was said to sound like a steam train.
By the 1960s, Anchor was the last steam brewery left in the city. Fritz Maytag was a student at Stanford University and enjoyed the beer. He was told in a bar one night it would be his last glass as Anchor was broke and about to close. Fritz was a member of the wealthy Maytag family that manufactured fridges, washing machines and other household goods. He cashed in his shares in the business and in 1965 bought Anchor and nursed it back to profitability.
He made a grand tour of Britain to see how classic ales were made and visited Young’s, Marston’s and Timothy Taylor. Armed with the information he’d garnered; he fashioned Liberty Ale (6 per cent). It created such interest among beer lovers starved of choice in a country dominated by Budweiser and Miller that many went from home brewing to launching small commercial breweries. The revolution was under way.
Fritz didn’t ignore Steam Beer (5 per cent) but nurtured it as the historic heart of the brewery. It’s produced in a separate area to avoid any cross-fertilisation of yeast cultures. It’s brewed in open fermenters, two feet deep, with pale and crystal malts and Northern Brewer hops. The beer is kräusened, meaning some partially fermented sugary beer is added to encourage a strong fermentation. The finished beer is conditioned for three weeks before going to trade.
Fritz Maytag added several other beers to his range, including wheat beer, porter and barley wine. In the 1990s he increased the world’s knowledge of the origins of beer by creating Ninkasi Ale, named after the goddess of brewing in Ancient Babylon. Experts had translated an Old World recipe and Fritz used it to make a beer with biscuits and malted barley. No hops were used but the recipe mentioned “the sweet thing” and Fritz added honey and dates.
He brought samples to this country, and I met him in his hotel for a tasting. The drink was sweeter than modern beer, but it was demonstrably beery and was wonderfully refreshing. It was a fascinating journey back in time.
In 2010, as he neared his eighties, Fritz sold the brewery to an investment company that specialises in the drinks business. Seven years later it sold Anchor to Sapporo for $85m. The Japanese group says it has closed Anchor as a result of poor sales and trading post-Covid. Other breweries have similar problems but are determined to stay the course.
In common with the likes of Heineken and Carlsberg, Sapporo certainly has the funds to steer Anchor through its current problems. For example, in 2006 it bought Sleeman Brewing in Canada for $400m and in 2022 it spent $168m buying the leading craft brewer Stone in California.
Anchor’s employees have launched a last-ditch attempt to buy the brewery back, but Sapporo has given them only until early August to raise the funds. If this fails, Anchor will become history, another sad headstone in the giant brewers’ graveyard.