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The Key to Summer Beer

Posted by at 9:02 pm | Category: Beer Backgrounds 0

Anchor historian Dave Burkhart explores Anchor’s first brew and bottling of Anchor Summer® Wheat, with a little help from former Anchor brewmaster Fritz Maytag.

We first brewed Anchor Wheat Beer—now known as Anchor Summer® Wheat—in 1984, in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the first brew in our Mariposa Street brewery. This is our sixth location in San Francisco since 1871, and—happily— our first move not prompted by earthquake, Prohibition, fire, or bankruptcy. “Wheat beer was something I wanted to try,” recalls Fritz Maytag, “and of course I knew there was nothing like it made in the US. We used an extremely high wheat content and we used spent hops in the lauter tun experimentally. I had heard that was an old brewers’ trick, which would help if the mash had high wheat content (unlike barley, wheat has no husks for filtering during lautering). We used almost two-thirds wheat malt. Later, we dropped the percentage a little as it was quite a challenge and also the beer was too ‘dry’ tasting.”

We bottled our wheat beer for the first time on August 10, the 222nd day of 1984. Bottling superintendent Chris Solomon drew a picture of a little key in the bottling book that day.

The bottling was just in time for our “First Brew Day” anniversary party on August 13. Fritz’s idea for the party was that “we would give the wheat beer in special-mold bottles to all our trusted friends and supporters and helpers who had made our new brewery a success.”

The key on the bottles is called a Zwickelschlüssel, German for sampling-valve key. “It’s an old device. Only the brewmaster would have one and a few trusted associates. It was needed to open the sample valves on cellar tanks, which had a triangular or other odd-shaped inner stem that could only be opened by the key. It’s not uncommon for a water spigot in parks or similar places to use a comparable device today.” At Anchor, we still call the sampling valve on a cellar tank a “Zwickel,” though—dare we say—these valves do not lock. There are still a variety of old keys and barrel taps in the Anchor brewery, including the Zwickelschlüssel that served as the inspiration for the key on the bottle. Note the little triangle on the key on the bottle and the triangle on the key itself.

The Zwickelschlüssel dates back many centuries and appears in many cultures. An early illustration in The Curiosities of Ale and Beer depicts a monastic cellarer caught in the act of taking advantage of his key privileges. Early English barrel-tap keys have become quite collectible, particularly when coupled with a solid-brass barrel tap.

So how was a tiny brewery able to create a custom bottle mold for 127 cases of beer? Fritz remembers it well. “The bottle company offered me a special one-of-a-kind mold, in a limited edition. The bottle molds were wearing out and would soon need to be replaced so they came to me and said it would be possible to make a special engraving on these old molds, run them once and briefly, and then throw them away.”

Fortunately for Anchor, the “then throw them away” part of the deal was forgotten and a set of these historic bottle molds survives, a cherished memento in the Anchor Brewing Collection.

Anchor Wheat Beer is a survivor too, still brewed in the same brewery where it was first brewed and bottled more than thirty years ago. And still the key to a great Summer!


This post was updated May 29, 2016.



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