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A Conversation with Anchor Brewing’s Kevin West

As San Franpsycho and Anchor Brewing’s relationship continues to grow, we’re stoked to be involved with the brewery’s amazing Drink Steam events. As the next Drink Steam event rears the corner (tonight at Make Out Room­–RSVP!), and in order to further our growing bond, I decided to interview one of Anchor’s brew masters, Kevin West. Having brewed with Anchor for 12 years, and worked at the brewery for a total of 22 years, Kevin seemed like the perfect person to learn more about the process of brewing beer, and Anchor Brewing Co as a whole.

Kevin so graciously poured him and I a beer – the California Lager. After a brief walk-about the brew house, reveling in the large copper instruments, we nestled in the corner of the notorious hops room where the heart of Anchor Brewing is pulled. Permeating were the intense smells and flavors as I talked with Kevin and learned about what it’s like brewing beer for Anchor, the values Anchor believes in, and what the difference is between a good beer and a great one.

SFP: What got you interested in brewing beer?

Kevin West: My story is mostly right place right time. I had a friend from when I was in the Air Force who had worked for Anchor. That was back in the late 80s when the only thing I was drinking that was considered “crafty” was maybe Sam Adams—and definitely Anchor when I could find it. My buddy got me the job and I’ve done just about everything there is to do in the brewery. I gave tours for three years…

So you didn’t start as a brewer?

I started in the bottle shop and worked there for about ten years. While I was working in the bottle shop, I would give tours too. Back then we would just give one tour a day, Monday through Friday at one o’clock. It was a cool gig because it got me out of the bottle shop, which isn’t really the greatest gig around.

What makes the bottle shop not so great?

You’re sitting on the line and you simply can’t leave a moving production line. It’s loud, and monotonous and I knew I always wanted to get up in here in the brew house. The trouble was, back then, we didn’t grow a whole lot. We would hangout at around anywhere from low–80,000 barrels to maybe high–90,000 barrels. A barrel of beer is 31 gallons, finished product. We have really grown in the last five years with new ownership. To put it in perspective, we will make 170,000 barrels this year.

What was interesting to you about Anchor in particular? What drew you to want to eventually brew for them?

Anchor is the one. It’s the one that started it all. I mean, sure, beer has been around for centuries, but the whole craft thing in this country, which unfortunately people tend to forget about, is awesome right now. There are 4,000 plus craft breweries in the United States today. The trouble with having that many breweries, and that much expansion in the industry, are sometimes things get forgotten. What we are trying to hammer home to people is where it all got started, and it started here. And that was in 1965 when a young Fritz Maytag decided he wanted to get involved with a failing company. That really drew me towards Anchor. I had had Anchor a few times and really enjoyed the beer. I ended up getting really lucky—life’s all about timing.

So what’s it like being a brewer for Anchor Steam?

It’s really cool—and the cool thing about it is the autonomy. Basically, I have a boss but he doesn’t really get involved because we know our jobs so implicitly. We have a group of ten brewers and we all know each other almost intimately. Four of us, myself included, have been here 20 years plus. So you know, we’ve got close to a hundred years between the four of us. The camaraderie here is great. I mean, what’s better than getting to have a beer where you work?

What’s the biggest change in Anchor you’ve seen in the last five years with the new ownership?

We’re a lot more competitive now, and a lot more relevant. The industry is always changing, and the one thing that has changed in the last five to ten years as we’ve grown was the explosion of IPA. Everybody loves IPA. The interesting thing about that is we started that whole thing with Liberty Ale, which was the first highly hopped beer in the country, and also the first dry hopped beer in the country. We’ve changed in the fact that we’re making beers likeAnchor IPA, and Double Liberty, which is a Double IPA. We’ve led a lot of trends in the industry, but we know that we also have to pick up on other trends as well.

What’s it like being a brewer in San Francisco?

It’s challenging sometimes. San Francisco was a very blue-collar city. The blue-collar history has now kind of gone away. Being in the city, we don’t have the advantage to buy up space right outside the brewery because a one-bedroom apartment across the street is one million dollars. It’s a challenge, but I think we are beginning to do it. We’ve tapped out on almost all of our space here so we’re planning on opening a new brewery on Pier 48 right across from McCovey Cove. It’s going to ideally be about four times the size of this brewery. I believe we’ll be opening Pier 48 in 2018, and it will be producing about 250 barrels a patch, making it close to half-a-million barrels a year for Anchor as a whole.

That being said, even though we want to grow and we want to expand, one of our core values is to stay traditional, which is whole cone hops, fermenting in open fermentation vessels, and sticking to those values. This is something very few craft breweries are doing these days.

Is there a community of actual brewers in San Francisco?

Oh yeah. There’s an organization called the San Francisco Brewers Guild, and we get together once a year to collaborate and make a beer for San Francisco Beer Week.

What’s the difference between a good beer and a great beer?

Consistency. The one thing that will always stay true as Anchor grows is our consistency, which is something I love about our beers.

On Wednesday, October 21st we will be hosting a Drink Steam event at the Make-Out Room with local music from the likes of Hibbity Dibbity and Bear Call, along with artwork from local artists inspired by San Francisco and Anchor Steam.

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