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A ‘Good’ Billionaire Bought Anchor Brewing. What Happens to Its Union?

Union members want to get back to work at the storied San Francisco brewery, but they have yet to hear from the brewery’s new owner

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San Francisco’s Iconic Anchor Brewing Acquired By Sapporo
Anchor Steam
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

Patrick Costello didn’t know Anchor Brewing Company had been bought until his phone started buzzing with questions from friends. Like the rest of Anchor Steam’s unionized workforce, Costello had lost his job in August 2023, when Sapporo USA, which had purchased the San Francisco brewery in 2017, announced plans to liquidate the business. It was a devastating blow to the city where Anchor Brewing had been brewing its signature steam beer for 127 years. But on May 31 of this year, billionaire Hamdi Ulukaya, who owns popular food brands Chobani and La Colombe, announced he had purchased the company and had plans to restart production. Costello is optimistic for the future. “Being just a single owner versus a corporation, I think is the best possible outcome,” he says.

It’s a profound statement, given that Costello is also the chair of the Anchor SF Cooperative, a group of former Anchor Brewing workers who were attempting to raise money to purchase the company and restart it as a worker-owned collective. The workforce, which had unionized under Sapporo’s ownership, had by the end of Sapporo’s tenure realized that the workers were really the ones running the show. Costello says for a while the packaging line didn’t have a packaging manager, and the workers were collectively working to get the product out. “I think the idea of the co-op was like, well, if we can run the floor by ourselves, what’s to stop us from trying to run the company ourselves?”

In a video published on May 31, seemingly filmed inside the Anchor brewery, Ulukaya, who has described himself as the “anti-CEO,” said he had been unfamiliar with Anchor Brewing until he came across an article about its closure. He felt compelled by its history as the oldest craft beer company in America, and inspired by the city of San Francisco in general. “It might be old, it might be given up on. But it is the crown jewel,” he said of the brewery. The San Francisco Chronicle reports Ulukaya’s family office purchased the company’s recipes, warehouses, and equipment for an undisclosed amount, though the Real Deal says its former plant went for $9.9 million, far below the $40 million Sapporo had listed it for.

Ulukaya has said he intends to bring back former Anchor Brewing workers to get the company up and running again. And national news outlets have framed this as a slightly feel-good story about the brewery’s sale. How nice that, in a city that seems to produce billionaires who are white supremacists or want to replace everything with AI, there’s one who wants to support a storied institution, and bring back a product so many people already love?

In a statement, Anchor Union, which is represented by the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, says that 30 out of 39 workers are committed to returning to work for the brewery if offered a job, and more are interested if Ulukaya gives them concrete plans on what business reopening would look like. “We were committed to doing our best for Anchor and we all took pride in our work and being part of a company that is so connected to San Francisco’s history,” said former worker Ryan Poulos. “I would come back to Anchor Brewing in a heartbeat.”

Ulukaya told the San Francisco Chronicle he had met with four former employees on an undisclosed date, and wants to get production up and running as soon as possible. But crucially, as of this writing, unionized workers have not heard from Ulukaya. “It’s great that he bought it, and that he’s on record saying that he wants to bring us back,” says Costello. “But no, we haven’t been reached out to yet. We’re trying every possible avenue to get this guy to actually come sit down and talk with us.” And the Chronicle reports that while Ulukaya still hasn’t spoken with the union, “he didn’t know whether the union that formed there shortly before the brewery closed will be part of the new operations.” (Ulukaya has not responded to Eater’s multiple attempts at contact.)

The idea of the benevolent billionaire is alluring. Surely many of us have fantasized about what good we’d do with such an astronomical amount of cash. But Anchor Brewing now exists at the whim of a man who admittedly has little experience in beer and little connection to San Francisco. Anchor Brewing’s path — from local operation to a company run by an international corporation that mismanaged and ultimately shut down production — is familiar in the history of craft brewing in America. Is one nice, rich guy the only way for a brewery to survive?

While craft and regional brewing has long been a part of the American beer landscape, “craft beer emerged into the mainstream really in the mid-to-late aughts,” says Dave Infante, a beer and liquor industry expert and author of the newsletter Fingers. “That was at a time when distrust in institutions was on the rise. America goes through the Great Recession and the mortgage crisis. There’s an understanding that corporations are not behaving in a way that benefits their communities.”

The entire mid-aughts “foodie” movement (out of which Eater was born) came as a reaction to the vast corporatization of what we eat. Slow food, local ingredients, seasonality — these all became the core values of someone who cares about what they ingest. It was no different in beer. Early craft brewers like Boston Beer Company, Brooklyn Brewery, and Allagash touted their European-style beers, or new American creations, made in small batches with quality ingredients. This ethos also applies to breweries like Anchor, which had been around for far longer, but which still represented locality and commitment to craft. To support local, small brewers was seen as an inherent good. The product was better, more creative, and your money wasn’t going to an international conglomerate like AB InBev. As consumers began to put their money where their values were, existing craft and microbreweries found financial success, and more began opening to capitalize on demand.

Fritz Maytag, heir of the Maytag Corporation, who bought Anchor Brewing when it was also at risk of shuttering in 1965, was also a nice rich guy. He is sometimes credited as the inventor of microbrewing, and by all accounts he was committed to quality over quantity and felt his values aligned with that of the wider movement in California cuisine. “I think Anchor, to the extent that Anchor was able to be successful over the course of the last century and part of this century is because it was very, very closely tied to the Bay Area, but also the slow food movement there,” says Infante. Microbreweries grew in popularity and succeeded because they were smaller, because you could only get them in certain parts of the country, which made them both alluring to connoisseurs and allowed for more direct control of the product.

For Infante, this David and Goliath story always deserved some skepticism. While international beverage conglomerates certainly made it difficult for smaller brewers to get to market, ideas of goodness and fairness and equity were heaped onto local brewers in ways they may not have deserved. “A lot of macro breweries are organized union workforces and to this day have higher wages, better health benefits, more of a voice on the job, and better safety” than at craft breweries, says Infante.

This is what many craft brewery workers began to realize as the craft beer movement grew, and small, local breweries were acquired by the same international companies the movement had initially rebelled against. Anchor Brewing’s workers unionized in 2019, after Sapporo bought the company, and bargained a contract that secured them higher wages, and according to Costello, allowed front-of-house workers at the tap room to keep working in production throughout lockdown. They were followed in 2020 by Fair State Brewing Cooperative, and unionization efforts at Great Lakes Brewing, Surly Brewing, and Goose Island, the latter two of which failed after company owners laid off organizers.

Costello says the first thing he did when he heard Ulukaya had bought the company was try to ascertain his stance on unions. To his relief, he hasn’t found any evidence of overt union busting. However, in 2019 a coalition of labor unions wrote to Ulukaya, asking Chobani to support union efforts in the dairy industry. The company responded, “We absolutely respect their right to organize, and share their commitment to improve worker welfare, safety and legal status. We’re fighting for the same progress — just taking different approaches.” The lukewarm response echoes Ulukaya admitting that he “didn’t know” if the Anchor Union would be part of new operations. And while Ulukaya has spoken of the importance of treating employees well, these are far from firm statements in support of a unionized workforce that gets to define for itself what that means.

While Anchor Brewing unionized under entirely different ownership, Costello says that regardless of Ulukaya’s presumed good intentions, the union needs to stay put. “A lot of people have asked me, ‘Will you still be union?’ Yes,” he says. “Being union just keeps the quality of the beer up. There’s an understanding that the workers are cared for, and we’re in control of our destiny of how we get treated.”

The craft beer industry as a whole is facing some of the same problems that are affecting many businesses right now. There are the rising rents and interest rates that are making it harder for longstanding businesses to stay afloat. But there are also issues specific to the beer world. While the number of operating craft breweries continues to rise, according to the Brewers Association, the beer market “shrank 5.1 percent by volume in 2023.” Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson attributes this to consumers opting for different kinds of alcohol. But overall, this creates an incredibly competitive distribution market.

This is why both Infante and Costello hope that Ulukaya leans into the locality of Anchor Brewing. “You can’t turn a craft brewery like Anchor corporate,” says Costello. “We could just chill and make cool beer. But for a corporation, that’s almost impossible. [It’s about] profit and money signs in people’s eyes.” The goal of the profit line forever climbing up isn’t sustainable for any business, but that’s especially not the case for food and beverage, an industry in which attempting to release your own version of the latest trend to chase profits often results in bad-quality products and a dilution of the brand. This is something Costello and the other workers in the proposed co-op understood. Their goal was to focus distribution in California, and to “reverse choices customers saw as ‘trend-chasing’ by staying with our traditional recipes and avoiding the over-hopped, seltzer-based fads of current times.”

Although Ulukaya hasn’t said much about his plans beyond reopening the brewery, Costello hopes he can trust Ulukaya’s word that he wants to bring back as much of the former team as possible. The Anchor Union has posted that they have repeatedly requested a meeting with Ulukaya to speak about the future. “We know that facility like nobody else. It wouldn’t be that difficult to just turn on some machines and start brewing beer,” he says. But for now, he waits.