Brewed the Hard Way. No, Seriously.

You know, I still have a lot of respect for Budweiser. The quality focus that went into brewing that beer was enormous, and it’s really underrated as a quality brewed beer. I understand that craft beer drinkers don’t care for the beer itself. I always understood that and it’s fine, but to say it’s not brewed with quality to me is a big mistake.

Mitch Steele, Brewmaster – Stone Brewing Company
Interview from NJ.Com September 2012


BBC15 - 1 (2)I reviewed the agenda for the 2015 Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference and there it was, like a shark in pod of dolphins. The mid-afternoon Saturday session was Quality and Consistency: The 3 PM Tasting, with an Anheuser-Busch brewmaster.

I had a bad feeling about it.

Friday’s Night of Many Bottles had been a late one. I was tired and fought to stay awake after a big southern lunch of fried chicken, green beans and cornbread. The 3 PM Tasting presented the perfect opportunity for a nap break, and I almost skipped the session. But I stayed. Part of me wanted to see the train wreck.

The Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference is an annual event where beer writers improve their craft, drink delicious beer and learn about new tools. Budweiser is not the first big brewer to sponsor a session. Leinenkugel (MillerCoors) and Heineken made past appearances, and the big guys receive a polite, albeit chilly reception. By comparison, the crowd fawns over craft beer rock stars like Garrett Oliver (2012), Kim Jordan (2015), Jim Koch (2013), Ken Grossman (2014 & 2015), and the aforementioned, Mitch Steele (2014).

Carla expected us to be on best behavior.

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The session was led by Mark Yocum, former AB Brewmaster and current manager of Brewing Raw Materials – North America. The crowd called Mark the “Bud Guy” while live-tweeting the session. In the beginning, the tweets revealed they were as skeptical as I was. The Bud Guy delivers his message to a lot of different groups, but he seemed to know he was in front of a tough crowd. He was in for a challenge, but I could tell he welcomed it.

BBC15 - 1Mark started with long talk about water quality, and Bud’s frequent water treatment and tasting sessions along the process. Bud even filters and treats the water used to rinse finished cans, rather than just using city water. Then he explained how they make the wort using 2-row barley and rice. Many of us were surprised, thinking Bud was brewed with mostly 6-row barley. Then, Mark asked us to open and taste the wort samples. Hesitantly, we tasted the wort. It was good. No joke. Gears were spinning in the heads of the homebrewers in the room. Something great could be made from it.

I tweeted that I wanted 5 gallons to ferment at home. To my surprise, AB corporate favorited my tweet. I am a homebrewer and know good wort when I taste it. Good ol boy Dave sat next to me, and a much better brewer than I, said the same thing. He threw out four or five ideas for fermenting the wort with various yeast and fruit additions to create interesting beers.

That is when the session changed. Mark knew he had our attention and we were warming up to the Bud Guy. He had a passion for precision brewing, quality control and careful processes. His skill and experience were earning our respect.

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We tasted the “chip beer” next. Chip beer is unfiltered, undiluted Budweiser. It is Bud from the lagering tanks, or fresh off the beechwood “chips.” The beechwood chips are layered in the bottom of the tank and add more surface area for the yeast to make contact with the beer. This is the final conditioning and krausening step for Bud before filtering, diluting and packaging. Beechwood aging could also be called beechwood lagering. The wood adds no flavors to the beer. In fact, Buds’s beechwood is boiled up to 10 times to remove oils and wood flavors. It is all about the surface area for happy little yeast to live on.

So, how was the chip beer? Here is the crazy thing… we liked it. There were hints of fruity yeast esters, rich flavors, depth and complexity. At 6.5-6.7% alcohol content, it is much stronger than 5% finished Bud. It would be a nice lawnmower beer.

A lot of us were surprised. We expected, maybe even wanted, the Bud chip beer to be disgusting. But there was no denying it, it was good beer.

I was not the only one who thought so.

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The consensus in the room was the beer was good. More than one person tweeted, myself included,  “Why don’t you sell this beer?”

walt

This is where the story changes. AB does not sell chip beer, they sell Budweiser. Bud’s flavor formulation is a business decision, not a result of a bad recipe or brewing mistake. Bud filters the chip beer then dilutes it down to 5% ABV before packaging. That’s unfortunate. Budweiser sold in stores is a shadow of the Bud coming out of the tanks.

BBC15 - 1 (1)Then we did something many conference attendees had not done in a very long time, open a cold Bud. It was the same crystal clear, pale yellow, overly sweet Bud we all know and love. Well, maybe not love. But we did have a newfound understanding and appreciation of how they make it.

That’s where the craft beer community and AB differ on the definition of quality. Quality process and quality flavor are not the same thing. AB adheres to quality brewing practices to produce a consistently mediocre beer. Craft brewers try to make a quality tasting beer, even if they struggle with the process.

There is no disputing Budweiser’s brewing processes and quality controls lead the industry. Budweiser Brew Masters consistently brew the same beer in 12 US plants every day, year after year. Think about that… millions of barrels of beer that all taste the same. That is a massive testimony to their uniform quality processes.

Craft brewing should be held to such a high standard. Any honest craft beer lover knows a lot of new breweries are making sub-par beer. Consistency is the holy grail of commercial brewers, and it takes a lot of work. Many small breweries have not figured it out yet.

Ryan nailed it…

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In the end, Bud Guy won us over. A tough crowd walked away with a new appreciation. Carla had nothing to fear. We were not only professional, but grateful. Thank you to Mark and Budweiser for sponsoring the session. I left impressed by your processes and quality control. I wasn’t alone.

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The bottom line?

I am still not stocking my beer fridge with Bud. Budweiser is overly sweet and I can barely detect hop bitterness.

But do not try to convince me Bud brewers do not know how to brew beer. They brew a consistent beer with precision. I do not like the flavor, but I cannot deny the process. Bud is one of the most carefully brewed beers on the planet. And if you will not take my word for it, listen to Mitch.


Afterword

I believe many readers will disagree with this post. That is OK. I am happy to have an intelligent discussion about the event, Bud’s brewing processes and AB-InBev’s business practices. But if you can only come up with, “Bud sucks!”, please do not waste your time. I am not an AB cheerleader. I think they are making significant strategic mistakes about the changing beer market, see this post. And they are no friend of the craft beer movement, read more in this great post on I Think About Beer.

For other takes on the event, check these writers out:

 

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