Back when I was living in Seattle, news broke that Hale’s Ales, a brewery with nearly four decades of serving the Fremont-Ballard area, was closing its doors. Reactions were emotional with many people recounting their memories of the place over the years. How could a Seattle mainstay, an icon of the city, a historic stepping stone in the PNW’s now rich craft brewing community, close?
But then there’s the realization: why would Hale’s Ales be closing if everyone loved it so much? It wasn’t even being acquired or having its name changed, and the company that bought the building has left it empty for now, no beers brewing. Could anyone even name the last time they’d had Hale’s Ales, or were they just reliving a memory from the time they went 12 years ago?
I’m not speculating on Hale’s Ales’ financials or anything like that, but I can’t help but think of Hale’s when I read that Anchor Brewing Company is cutting production of one of the most important beers in craft brewing history.
Anchor Steamer – An Anchor In Craft Brewing History
Anchor Brewing is officially reducing production and ending national distribution of Anchor Steam, a beer whose history is as rich as that of entire breweries.
Anchor Steam was first produced in 1896, and has continued production sans a few interruptions like the brewery burning down and Prohibition. As a steam beer, Anchor Steam feels like a relic. Not only does steam bring train engines to mind, but where do you even find steam beers these days?
But Anchor Steam played a critical role in today’s craft brewing landscape. After a takeover in 1971, the Anchor Steam recipe was remade into a California Common ale, and today serves as the paramount version of the brew.
What made Anchor Steam unique wasn’t the brew (although that’s obviously important), but it’s that Anchor Brewing began to bottle and distribute the beer. This essentially made Anchor Brewing the first microbrewery to hit it big, offering a unique beer that wasn’t Budweiser to the American population. It’s not a stretch to say that Anchor Brewing inspired small brewers to focus on making a unique, quality product at a smaller scale — i.e. craft brewing.
So, want to try a taste of craft brewing history? Well, you can’t unless you live in California because Sapporo, who purchased Anchor in 2017, announced that national distribution for all beers, including Anchor Steam, was being cut.
Oh, and they’re doing away with the popular Christmas Ale entirely.
Are Historic Breweries Worth Protecting?
Due to Anchor being owned by a larger business, we know for certain that money played a role in Anchor Steam production getting reduced, and if money played a role then that can only mean that people weren’t buying Anchor Steam.
But can you force people to buy something they don’t want? Today’s craft beer landscape offers so much variety that you’d be forgiven for not buying a steam beer with a 50-year-old recipe. You probably never even tried it even though it’s nationally distributed (up until now, of course).
It’s a shame that important places like Hale’s Ales and beers like Anchor Steam are becoming casualties. But words only go so far, and money speaks loudly in the business world.
So, here’s the brass tacks: if you love a beer or a brewery, you need to shop there and buy beer. Empty words on social media don’t mean anything if brewers can’t afford to pay their staff or keep the doors open. A truly profitable brewery would persist from one owner to another, not just shut its doors.
I’m not arguing for a defense of Anchor Steam — Sapporo might have reduced production even if sales were decent, they have their own agenda — but I am arguing for people to support the businesses they like.
Anchor Steam is a big example that’s out of our hands entirely, but maybe Hale’s Ales could have been a different story.