Tuesday night, Gabe and I went to the San Francisco Historical Society’s November talk. The talk, entitled “The 150 Year Cycle of Brewing in San Francisco,” focused on the historical trends affecting brewing in San Francisco. And it came with a free bottle of Anchor Steam!
In typical historical society fashion, I was the youngest person there, evidenced by the fact that I was very noticeably the first person carded. (The two women had a whole discussion first about whether or not I should be and came to the decision that I looked young enough to card and that it was a compliment. And then they carded Gabe, probably just to make me feel better.) Unlike most SF Historical Society lecture nights, however, there was a decently-sized contingency of late 20- and 30-somethings so we weren’t too conspicuous. (Last time I went to a lecture night, I was definitely called out by another patron for being way so much younger.)
The talk was based on one given at Hops & History, a Flipside Event from last May. Flipside is the Historical Society’s effort at attracting younger folks to the Old Mint. (When I told my dad about it, he expressed some interest, and I realized in horror that the “younger people” the Historical Society was trying to attract were, you know, my parents.) Always on Thursday nights, they feature some type of alcohol and a loose historical programming. My friend Alexis and I went to the Jameson-sponsored “Oddball San Francisco” night last June, where we learned about skyscraper cocktail lounges and the strange characters in SF’s past. The next month, Gabe, Brandon and I went to the magical unlimited wine tasting, which featured some programming about the history of wine in California but honestly it was more about the whole unlimited wine thing. I’d missed Hops & History, but it presumably focused on the history of beer in SF, and included tastings from many of the 14 breweries in the city. The talk that night apparently went well, because it found its way into the normal Society schedule.
The first few slides compared the national trends in brewing with San Francisco’s. With both, there was a high in the mid- to late-19th century (1860s-1880s) which fluctuated around the turn of the century. San Francisco began to decline right around World War I, when military liquor laws outlawed booze near the bases, and all brewing plummeted with Prohibition. (The speaker spoke intermittently about the effect of women getting the vote and the increase in Prohibition laws.) There was a bit of an upswing after the Repeal, but the number of brewers was much lower in the mid-20th century than in the 19th, which the speaker attributed to the large number of “mega-brewers.” Recently, there’s been an uptick in the number of brewers – primarily craft brews – with overall American numbers higher than ever!
(I don’t know where he got his stats but if anyone has them please feel free to leave links in the comments)
The speaker then went through and gave some details on a few of the brewers in San Francisco over the last century or so. One interesting anecdote from the talk concerned “steam” beer. Special to the San Francisco area, it’s based on German lagers but doesn’t use refrigeration, since, the speaker said, mid-19th century San Francisco lacked both ice and Bovarian caves with which to chill the beer. He proposed two theories for the “steam” name: one, that the name came from the steam that would billow out from the top floors of the breweries as the beer was made, and two, that when kegs were opened, steam would come out. Apparently, Anchor Steam endorses the former.
One particular brewer he focused on was Acme Beer, which was apparently all the rage when he was a child but mysteriously disappeared from the shelves. They did “near beer” during Prohibition, which meant it was not alcoholic enough to be prohibited (he gave the number 0.05%) but could somewhat replicate the taste. Like many beers, it originated in German immigrants, but when World War I hit the company removed the German crest from the logo and replaced all German writing with English. In the 1930s, it took the novel approach of marketing beer to women, using good-looking female models and phrases like “It’s dietically non-fattening!* *Relatively so, when compared with other foods.” But the beer faltered in the post-World War II era; the speaker insinuated the company may have cut corners and used certain roots in the brewing that made the beer taste bad when sent to soldiers serving in the South Pacific. When the soldiers returned home, they remembered the bad taste and renounced their brand loyalty. The company basically collapsed and relapsed over the postwar years before dying for good in the 1980s.
The last segment focused on the modern era, or the “Brewing Renaissance.” The speaker talked about his son who brewed beer in high school, a past-time made possible by HR 1337, which allowed for the home production of beer. He then linked this 1970s/80s hobby to modern craft brewing: “the young people, the dot com people want to taste their beer.” Oh us hip young millennials.
But on the topic of hip young people and beer, here’s a tidbit he mentioned at the end that I already knew about: Anchor Steam will soon be opening up a new brewery right next to AT&T park! (Well, by soon I mean as early as 2016.) As San Francisco becomes an increasingly white collar, techie town, the new brewery represents a new manufacturing workspace right near the financial district. The brewery will feature a museum, and aims to posit itself as a tourist attraction. It’s part of a mixed-space development plan on Mission Rock on land owned by the Giants. It will sit amongst apartments, offices and retailers.
Like many other public history lectures I’ve seen, the night was mostly a cursory glance over the chronology of events as opposed to serious historical investigation. But it did provide a fun glance into some neat stories from San Francisco history and leave open some space for questions that could be worth investigating. There were implicit stories of class/ethnic tension: many of the worker were in poorer neighborhoods; Germans brewed lager while WASP descendants sipped on ales. Discussion of Prohibition brought up the complex dynamic between progressive ideas of women’s rights and constricting views on alcohol usage. There were hints at economic histories involving the consolidation of breweries, and thoughtful commentary on how sometimes marketing can supersede product quality when it comes to brand success. The Q&A was short and sweet and the slides had neat images and it was overall an enjoyable program.
Also did I mention we got beer?
PS: If you’re interested in FlipSide, they have an event this Thursday! “Sunken Ships, Shanties, & Shucks: Sordid Stories of Seaward San Francisco.” I don’t think I can go, but if you’re free, it’s only $12 to get in, and you get to poke around this awesome building and learn about the sordid history of the San Francisco waterfront. They will have drinks from Pisco Punch, Pushback Wine and Anchor Brewing. AND your donation could help build a San Francisco museum! Do itttt