Standard Deviant Brewing is a big converted warehouse style room on 14th Street between Mission and Minna streets. There are exposed rafters and a skylight, covered in hanging lights. Four TVs, playing some sports but mostly commercials, hang from the ceiling and walls. The brewing vats are clearly visible, and a good look, in the open space behind the bar. Obligatory music plays over the sound system, not so much conveying the sense that anybody here likes the music as that everybody here feels there’s supposed to be music.
There are no seats at the bar — that’s standing room only — and all the seating is communal: Mostly picnic tables, along with a couple of tables and barstools (some inside, some out), and a couch. There’s a taco stand inside that seems to be run independently, and takes Venmo, cash, or adding it to your tab at the bar. You can’t miss the taco guy; he’s wearing a novelty taco hat.
I went to Standard Deviant not long after hearing the news about Anchor Brewing, because I wanted to raise a glass to that honorable and dearly beloved brewing company without … you know … actually drinking Anchor Steam. Which, for most of my life, was a beer that I measured other beers against, rather than a beer that I actually ordered. Back when I lived on the East Coast, I knew a guy named Mark. Mark managed a gas station for his day job, but was a professional stand-up comedian on the side. Every chance he got, he’d hit the road playing whatever cheap-ass venue would pay his gas money to come out and do time. Visiting a lot of shitty bars, his first order was always an Anchor Steam. If the bar had it, he knew he could trust their judgment. If the bar didn’t have it, well, he wasn’t going to trust them on anything else, either.
Once, at the only local tavern in a small village in upstate New York, he asked, “Do you have Anchor Steam?” The bartender gave him an angry, offended look, and responded “what kind of cheap gin joint do you think I’m running?” before handing him a bottle. Mark loved that moment, and that was Anchor Brewing’s place in this country.
That beer’s legendary, but when I started to review beers back in the late ’90s, it was already behind the times. It was a beer people trusted, but nowhere near the front lines of America’s microbrew revolution. It was eclipsed by a gold rush of new beers, some truly innovative, some just gimmicks, much like software companies in the tech boom. Dogfish Head was turning heads with Raison D’etre and Immort Ale; there were lagers made with water from polar glaciers (it was noticeably good!), unspeakable things were being done with chocolate brews. Anything went. Anchor Steam was a staple, but had long ago ceased to be exciting.
Standard Deviant is here, like any and every craft brewery, because Anchor opened a door and did it better than anybody before we got good at this. I can’t believe it’s gone.
The lack of seating at Standard Deviant’s large bar means that, on the one hand, it’s hard to find community at the bar. But, on the other hand, there’s nobody lingering there to get in the way of ordering a drink. That shows: No matter how crowded the bar got while I was there, ordering a drink was always quick and painless. I’m sure there’s a wait at peak times, but it’s a very well-designed system.
There were two bartenders and no waiting when I stepped up.
“What would you like?” one asked, with an affect halfway between “chipper” and “over it.”
“What do you recommend?”
“Oh,” he said, “we have such a selection it’s hard to say” … blah blah blah. I hate it when bartenders pretend not to have a preference. Also, their selection isn’t big, by beer garden standards. But okay.
“I don’t like IPAs,” I said. “Steer me someplace else.”
“Well, for a sunny day like today I’d try our lager or our kolsch,” he said. “Crisp, light, easy.”
“I’ll take a lager,” I said. ($7). It was all of those things.
I went and found a seat at a communal table. It was a little noisy for my taste, especially as the bar filled up, but it’s a good casual hang-out spot. A place you’d come — and only come — to be with your friends. The few people I saw there alone (one sitting on the couch, one at a table near a corner) appeared to be having no fun at all. I suspect if someone looked at me, that’s what they’d see, too. Like we were all waiting for something to happen.
After about half an hour, one of them left, defeated.
I stuck around, though, because I wasn’t there to have fun: I was in mourning.
If you came of age after the 1990s, it’s hard to imagine how bad American beer used to be.
America had a robust and interesting beer culture for our first 150-or-so years, as immigrants from cultures across the world came here and brought their recipes and ingenuity with them. America had 4,000 breweries going into the 20th century. But Prohibition devastated our beer culture as much as our cocktail culture. Brewmasters had to find other jobs, or go to prison. A whole industry, and its accumulated expertise, was wiped out. When Prohibition ended, only about 70 breweries were able to reopen. We had to start over, and we became all macro-breweries all the time. For decades, American beer was the laughingstock of the world.
California, led by Anchor, changed that, and when it happened, it happened fast. When Anchor started getting its reputation as the first craft brewery of America’s post-World War II era, America had about 100 breweries. By the mid-’90s, we had 1,000, and craft beer had gone from a running joke to an obsession. By 2018, there were 7,000 American breweries, some regarded as among the best in the world.
A small group sat down near me at a communal table in Standard Deviant. Two women, three men. I eagerly tried to eavesdrop, but they were all speaking French. It was the worst of all worlds; none of the advantages of being alone, none of the pleasure of meeting strangers. I considered jumping to another table, but by this point most of them were taken.
I walked back up to the bar instead. “Sorry, what’s your last name again?” the bartender asked, unnecessarily apologetic. Why should he remember? I ordered two tacos al pastor ($10) and the wine barrel-aged farmhouse ale ($10). The wine flavor didn’t really come through, the total effect is much more “farmhouse” sour, but it’s a well-done sour. The tacos were really solid, an excellent accompaniment for drinking. They didn’t pair well at all with the ale, but both orders were still a good decision. I just timed that order badly.
This combination of flavors, Belgian farm-style sour ale and pork tacos with pineapple, didn’t exist just over 20 years ago. Neither originated in California, but we put them together. We were the fusion that powered a transformation in global cuisine.
The technical definition of what it means for something to be a “craft beer” has changed a number of times over the decades, and was never really important until 2011. Before that, arguing about whether a beer was really “a craft beer” was like arguing about whether Thor could beat Superman in a fight. The point was that small breweries were doing what big ones couldn’t. Around 2005, I interviewed a senior vice president at international conglomerate Constellation Brands. She was showing me a list of all the product lines they had, and I remember thinking “none of that is interesting. None of your products are worth writing about.” They were getting outmaneuvered at every turn.
But in 2011, Anheuser Busch/InBev purchased Chicago’s Goose Island brewery. It was the moment big breweries took a “if you can’t beat them, buy them” strategy towards America’s craft-brew revolution. Suddenly the question “is it REALLY a craft brew?” took on a whole new relevance. A wave of purchases followed: AB-InBev bought more than a dozen more small, independent, breweries; Constellation and MillerCoors went on shopping sprees. Instead of doing better, they spent more. Big companies solved their problem by buying up a lot of independent breweries, wineries, and distilleries that I liked and, on average, making them more available and, on average, making them worse. And smaller breweries that stayed independent started feeling the squeeze.
When big businesses gobble up smaller, better, more innovative companies, the wheels of progress start to fall off. We’ve all seen it happen over and over again by now. As it happens, the publication I was writing for when I was interviewing Constellation Brands executives got bought up by a much bigger company a year later, and a decade later, that bigger company merged with an even bigger one. Since that time, every single publication they own has either shuttered or grown observably worse.
Yet somehow, when Sapporo bought Anchor in 2017, it didn’t seem like that big a deal to me. Sapporo is a good brewery! You could do a lot worse! And anyway, I was so happy that my beloved Trappiste beers, brewed by monks in Belgium and northern France, were no longer obscure and were available everywhere on earth. Let’s hear it for free trade! How many times did this have to happen before I understood what it meant?
During the pandemic, my humble editor, Joe Eskenazi, would occasionally drop by my apartment after he’d put his kids to bed. He’d bring beer. I’d take some camping chairs outside and we’d sit in front of my building, six feet apart, drinking together. Joe and I have very different taste in beer, but we could always agree on Anchor Steam.
I remember how incensed he was when the beer was rebranded. He showed me the new packages, the new bottles, the new logos, in front of my place, and was furious. He hated it with such a passion! He was all but yelling about how bad it was. I shrugged it off. Yeah, it was a bad change for no good reason, but … it wasn’t a big deal to me. The only time I had Anchor Steam anymore was at moments like this; when I was at a party and someone brought some.
The idea that it would get closed down, sold for parts, never to be made again … it never occurred to me. I was so wrong. You only appreciate what you had when it’s gone.
I walked back to the bar at Standard Deviant. This time the bartender said “Mr. Wachs! What can I do for you?” It seemed like we’d gone on an emotional journey together and I’d completely missed it. I ordered a cognac barrel brown ale ($10), and yeah, that’s the stuff. There’s so much good beer in the world today!
More people came in. The open space and plenty of communal tables kept Standard Deviant from feeling crowded, even as it filled up. But it was filling up. It’s not my kind of gin joint, but it’s really well designed to handle a crowd.
The French contingent next to me kept expanding, and was having a great time. By my third beer, it had gotten large enough that, as new people came and sat down at the table, they started giving me a side-eye, wondering: How much longer would I be there? Could they ask me to make room for their friends?
They didn’t say anything, but that look translates across languages.
The truth is, it’s hard to fathom how much better American beer culture is than when Anchor got big more than 50 years ago. The truth is also that we’re never getting back what we’re losing now.
I smiled at my French tablemates. They didn’t notice. I got up and paid my tab.
Read more Distillations.