Anchor deserved better
After just six years at the helm, Sapporo USA is scuttling America's first craft brewery
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This morning at about 1:45am local time, Anchor Brewing Company issued a brief press release announcing its imminent liquidation, citing “a combination of challenging economic factors and declining sales since 2016.” The brewery has been operating in one form or another since 1896; its current owner, Japan’s Sapporo conglomerate, acquired the firm and its iconic Potrero Hill facility in 2017 for a reported $85 million.
Yesterday, I broke the news in VinePair that Anchor was at a crossroads: workers I’d interviewed over the weekend told me they feared closure was imminent, while another source close to the situation claimed the brewery was about to be sold to another Northern California craft brewing. We ran with an optimistic headline, but it turns out the workers were right. Now, barring a white-knight buyer swooping in at the last moment, Anchor will be sold for scrap.
Craft breweries close all the time, especially in these days of flatlining segment growth and marketshare encroachment from spirits. But Anchor is not just any craft brewery. By most accounts, it’s America’s first craft brewery, credited with mainstreaming the entire concept of local, independent, artisanal beer production starting in 1965, when industrial scion Fritz Maytag saved the company from insolvency. Maytag transformed Anchor’s flagship steam beer from “sometimes drinkable” to “consistently delicious,” and played benevolent godfather to two generations of brewing virtuosos that would go on to become household names in the industry. Though Maytag sold the brewery in 2010 to the pair of Skyy Vodka vets who’d go on to sell it to the Japanese later that decade, and has since retired, present-day Anchor employees still fondly refer to him on a first-name basis in interviews.
Sapporo’s management of the storied Bay Area brewery betrays no such sentimentality. Via its United States’ subsidiary, Sapporo USA, the megabrewer made several baffling missteps at Anchor’s helm. When the brewery’s production workers unionized in 2019, the company’s execs spent weeks trying to bust the union and ultimately forced an election, casting themselves as cartoonish corporate villains to the pro-labor local customer base in San Francisco. They introduced a disastrous rebrand in 2021 that turned Anchor’s singular homespun look into a retina-searing amalgamation of much younger craft breweries’ worst aesthetic tendencies. They made costly investments in automated bottling and canning lines that might’ve made the plant more efficient if they were properly commissioned and staffed—but workers tell me they never were, meaning production actually decreased by as much as 60%. And when Sapporo USA acquired San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. in June 2022, Anchor became second fiddle—the Japanese wanted to brew rice lager, and its smaller, older facility couldn’t easily be retrofitted to do so, while Stone’s could.
There’s a ton more to come on this story, and I expect to be breaking more news on it later this week. Watch this space and VinePair for more. In the meantime, some quick thoughts:
Anchor and its workers deserved better than this. I don’t often simp for companies, but the brewery made it through Prohibition, two World Wars, a century of the American drinking public’s changing tastes, and innumerable minor calamities along the way just to get tossed on the scrap heap by a foreign conglomerate after half a dozen years of corporate rake-stepping. Brutal.