Untethered: Anchor Away Thanks to Sapporo Cutting Ties


Reflecting on the Death of the “First” Craft Brewer

When I told my editor, Jacob Berg, I wanted to write a piece on Anchor, he asked “What’s the piece?” According to him, Anchor had been a nonfactor in DC for a decade. It’s hard to argue that point, but what I hope to provide here are some lessons learned, some guide posts, and some things to consider.


If you’ve not heard the news, Anchor is closing. There’s a whole host of pieces but I have to credit Dave Infante whose reporting on this has been stellar for some time. News on distribution was first reported by him in June, and for the last month we thought Anchor would only have beer in California and no longer have national distribution. Looking back now, a month later, it seems that that would’ve been a softer blow for beer fans compared to Anchor, or Sapporo USA, closing shop.

The last time I wrote about Anchor in print was 2017. It was for Washington City Paper (which used to be in print!), and that article turns six next month. Ironically, August 2017 was when Sapporo USA announced its purchase of Anchor. At the time, I emailed Anchor’s distributor who informed me there were two accounts that had Anchor California Lager on draft: Joe’s Seafood and Daily Grill.

As a guide post, a 16 oz draft of Anchor California Lager cost me $7.50 in 2017. A six pack of Anchor’s California Lager cost $9.99 at my local grocery store. What a steal! Finding a craft six pack for that price today has become increasingly difficult. Thanks to the magic of cell phone photography I know there was pricing parity with DC Brau beers in the same grocery store, also selling for $9.99 a six pack.

What I am seeing now is some pricing parity for craft and some crafty imports: Pilsner Urquell retails for $11.99 and so does DC Brau’s Brau Pils and Port City’s Helles lager. You may not know that larger retailers, say a grocery store, Costco, etc., get a discount for the more cases they buy. This allows them to pass along this discount to the consumer. This is potentially why Anchor was $11.99 in Virgina Total Wine, $9.99 in a Fresno, California Total Wine, and likely costs more in smaller retailers. As stocks of Steam Beer dwindle locally at massive big box store Total Wine, small retail outlets like Craft Beer Cellar will continue selling local steam beer after Anchor closes.

Back in 2017, when I was seeking more information from the distributor, I had to send several emails to get a single response. I asked if he knew how old the packaged beer was. The draft tasted fresher than the bottles. The date coding on the bottles in my grocery store showed bottles were packaged in January. It was August. He finally responded letting me know that “Brewed in May – There is a year shelf life on this product. Should be totally fine.” Silly me for thinking of January bottles as old! They could’ve gone another four months before they were beyond their shelf life! Something to consider: if you have beer in a market that is 2,000 to 3,000 miles from your brewery, you may want some spies on the inside. Or even if your beer is sold 5-10 miles from your brewery, there are some 1-year-old cans’ birthdays approaching in August.

It leads me to ask the question, who is to blame? Is it on me, the consumer for buying eight month old beer? Is it on the distributor? Or is it the brewery’s fault?

Perhaps it’s on us. The royal we, we the customers. But in terms of who is to blame, I know that so often the blame is shared between customers, retailers, distributors, and brewers. Consider this, that we simply didn’t buy it enough. But for me, I always favored Anchor California Lager over Anchor Steam Beer. I haven’t been able to find it since 2017. My editor prefers Liberty Ale, unseen in these parts for years. He last bought a magnum of Our Special Ale at Costco in 2021; he didn’t see it in 2022. Who’s to blame there?

The last sixer I bought of Anchor Steam ran me $13.00. For most of 2022, Anchor Steam Beer cost $12.50 at the Craft Beer Cellar on H Street. In 2021 it was $11.75. In 2020, it was $11.50.

According to the Brewers Association numbers from their annual The New Brewer publication, Anchor produced 70,182 barrels in 2019. In 2020, they brewed 50,000 barrels. In 2021 they brewed 72,500, and last year they brewed 65,000. Not great! But no matter how many cases of California Lager I could’ve consumed, there’s no way I could’ve consumed 20,000 barrels of lager to account for the decline in barrelage from 2019 to 2020. That’s about 40,000 kegs of lager! The Nationals would have to win at least two World Series’ to do that kind of production.

The lack of Anchor in DC is, as my editor said, a nonfactor. What I find interesting is that when Craft Beer Cellar opened in 2016, sixers of Anchor were $11.50 and stayed at that price point from 2016 to late 2020. 2016 was a heady time for beer, we had Old Foghorn barleywine and Anchor Porter available for purchase on H Street and further throughout the city.

When I talked to CBC owner, Erika Goedrich, she noted she had sales of California Lager in her system from 2017 and 2020. She was unsure if the gaps were her or that the product wasn’t available. What’s more important to me, is the notion that even a big brewer like Anchor, with massive cultural significance, much beloved, needs constant maintenance in and especially out of the home market, and in distribution and retail. At one point, several years ago, Anchor began canning Steam beer in 19.2 ounce “stovepipe” cans.

Retailers begged their distributor for these cans. The feeling was that if they could get Steam Beer in 19.2 ounce cans, they’d be selling them hand over fist. Alas, the distributor never sold these cans to the independent retailers, and smaller chains that could’ve likely moved the Anchor product more effectively than the big box stores.

So while I will continue to look for people to blame (brewery ownership groups, distributors, retailers, ourselves) to track who is responsible, I know that I share in the blame of Anchor’s closing. And because I share in that blame, I feel I am able to assign it to others. I once loved a lager so deeply, I put it in my biweekly column at an alt weekly that bled from ink and left the print world for the internet. But in the wise words of Jenny Lewis, “You are what you love, not what loves you back.”