Anheuser-Busch Christmas and Winter Brews of the mid 1990s

Merry Christmas!

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The lights hung at the St. Louis Brewery at Christmas time were always magical to me.

Most brewers know this fact: call a winter seasonal beer a “Christmas” beer or “Holiday” beer, and you can’t give the stuff away the day after Christmas. It’s one reason why Stone Brewing Co. has never really done a Holiday Seasonal , and I don’t expect we ever will (the Stone Vertical Epic 12.12.12 is the possible exception-but that had additional staying power because it was part of a series).  Anheuser-Busch felt the same way, and experienced this very real effect after the release of their 1st holiday beer in a long time, the 1995 Christmas Brew Beer. It stopped selling very quickly after the holiday season, and there was a fair amount of inventory that eventually had to be destroyed. After that, the holiday beers we brewed were called “Winter”, which still suffers from the same seasonal effect, but not to such a large degree.

I worked on 4 Holiday beers at Anheuser Busch-in 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998. I honestly don’t remember a heck of a lot about the brewing and recipes for three of them, but I love telling the story of one in particular.

CHRISTMAS BREW 1995

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This beer’s development started in the late summer of 1995, a few months after I had moved to St. Louis to join Corporate Brewing/Brewing Process Technology/The Specialty Brewing Group. Dan, my predecessor in New Products, spearheaded this project from the office of the VP of Brewing, and Paul and I worked on putting this concept from Dan and Directors and VP level Brewmasters together. This was the first Christmas beer that AB had done in years, if not decades. All I really remember about this one is that it was all malt, had a nice amber color, and a balanced and slightly aggressive hop profile, with some late hopping intended to emphasize pine flavors.

The back label text: “In the 1890’s, Adolphus Busch began a tradition of brewing special beers for the holiday season.These beers are offered to friends and customers. We are proud to bring back this tradition with a limited bottling of Christmas Brew 1995”.

SPECIAL WINTER BREW 1996

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I remember we worked very closely with Corporate Brewing Directors and and the VP of Brewing on this one. This beer was re-named Winter Brew to avoid the intense seasonality of Christmas beers. I don’t remember much about the recipe, except it was again an amber/brown lager, more in line with a Muenchener Dunkel, not very hoppy, with a really nice rich and smooth malt character. I remember being very pleased with the end result, and one of my lasting memories about this project was that VP of Brewing Gerhardt Kraemer was very happy with it and congratulated us on it.

Note that both the 1995 and 1996 beers were packaged in the same bottles used for the American Originals.

The back label text: “”At the turn of the century, Adolphus Busch began a tradition of brewing special beers for the holiday season.We are proud to continue this tradition with a limited bottling of our 1996 Special Winter Brew. I’ve brewed this beer to be a rich, flavorful lager that’s perfect for the celebrations of the season.”-Gerhard A. Kraemer, Head Brewmaster”.

MICHELOB WINTER BREW SPICED ALE:

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This 1997 Holiday beer had the best label and the most convoluted story. I can laugh about it now, but this beer was brutal to develop, and caused a few sleepiness nights.

By the Fall of 1997, The American Originals beers were either gone or on their last legs. Because of the huge success of Michelob Amber Bock,  Marketing was putting a huge focus on expanding the Michelob lineup with a series of specialty beers-more on those beers in an upcoming post. It’s worth noting that a new Specialty Brewing Group marketing person was on board, and the shift from the American Originals to the Michelob lineup was a very calculated move.

New Products was normally given one brew a week at the 10 Bbl the Research Pilot Brewery (RPB) attached to the the main St. Louis Brewery, and if I remember correctly, at the time they were brewing 10 brews total per week. Most of what they brewed were variations and tests on Budweiser-some really cool beers-single hop variety Budweiser and the like. Since we had reasonably frequent access to the RPB brewing schedule, we set a goal for ourselves to pilot brew at least one example of every recognized beer style in the RPB. We figured if we did this, we’d learn a lot about each style and perhaps have some good recipes in our back pocket, because there were many times when the new product releases came at you fast, and there wasn’t enough time to really run a lot of trials to finalize the recipe.

At some point in 1996 or 1997 I came up with a recipe for a Scotch Ale that the RPB brewed for us. It was really tasty strong, malty ale, and became a favorite of August Busch III’s-the story was that he often poured the beer at his house. In fact, I know we brewed it a couple of more times at the RPB so it would be available if he wanted it. I’ll share much more about that beer in a later post, but the point is when we were given the news that the 1997 Winter beer would be part of the Michelob Family, we suggested this Scotch Ale, and everyone involved, all the way up to VP level executives, agreed on that direction. So this beer seemed a no-brainer, especially since it was confirmed that AAB III already liked it, because getting his approval on a new beer was often the hardest part of the process. And we already had approval from all other high level management people, because they had already tasted the beer.

We had starting brewing full sized 400 bbl batches of the Michelob Holiday Scotch Ale in Merrimack, we had purchased and shipped in all the malts, sent in some copy for the label and marketing material, and everything was moving forward very nicely.  And when the first batch was in the aging tank, Marketing pulled an abrupt about face, and told us they wanted a Spiced Ale instead. This was a definite “WTF” moment, and we tried and tried and couldn’t get them to see the logic and agree to go back to the original plan. We needed up dumping the in progress batches.

So it was already late in the game-it was probably September by this time, and the Winter beer had to be in distribution by late October. Paul, Steve and I quickly put together some kind of traditional spiced ale, using spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove, and we asked the RPB to brew it as a priority. 2 weeks later, we were tasting in the Corporate Taste Panel-called the “220 Panel”, with Doug Muhleman, who had taken Gerhardt Kraemer’s spot as VP of Brewing. Doug tasted the beer, looked at us and said: “guys, this beer tastes like a Betty Crocker Spice Cake. If we’re going to do a spiced ale, I want us to use more exotic spices. Let’s not be so predictable”. I actually liked his feedback and agreed with him, though I still hated the idea of doing a spiced beer at all.

So we quickly came up with another recipe that used things like Cardamom, Coriander, and a couple of other eastern spices, and 2 weeks later we were again sitting in the 220 Taste Panel, and tasted the beer with Doug. This time, he liked it, which was a good thing, because we were sweating bullets-we were quickly running out of time to get this beer recipe sent out, get the beer brewed, fermented and bottled in Merrimack in time for the scheduled release. The phone calls I got from Marketing and the brewing team at Merrimack were relentless. They needed to know what the beer was and if it would be ready in time.

The next step in the taste approval process, after VP of Brewing approval, was the Marketing and Sales Team, and ultimately the beer ended up at August Busch’s desk for final approval. We could not brew this beer for real until we had his approval. In what I consider a classic AB moment, when he tasted the beer, he got in touch with Doug Muhleman and said something to the effect of “What the hell is is this!? When I drink a spiced Christmas Beer, I want something with cinnamon. And clove. And nutmeg! Something traditional!” How ironic, how deflating, and how frustrating it was to learn of AAB III’s comments and being faced with going back to the drawing board.

So we quickly went back to the original recipe with some modifications Doug made while playing around in his kitchen at home. I do think he enjoyed this level of involvement with creating a beer, and I remember he found this crazy liquid brown sugar that we added to the beer that give it a really nice molasses touch. I know we used a little chocolate malt in it and plenty of 40L crystal malt. The powdered spices were all added during the kettle boil. We got the beer brewing in Merrimack and made the release date by the skin of our teeth. And unfortunately, by most accounts, the beer was a flop. Certainly not as popular as the 1996 Winter Brew had been.

The beer itself was a moderately strong brown ale, with pronounced spices, followed by a cocoa and molasses finish. Not one of my favorite beers that I worked on, for a lot of reasons.

The Neck Label Text: Left: “The addition of spices during the brewing process is one of the Brewmaster’s seasonal traditions, as spices can add excitement and festiveness to a brew.” Right: “The traditional spices used in this winter offering add a unique contrast to the sweetness emanating from the caramel and chocolate malts used in brewing this hearty ale.”

 

1998 MICHELOB WINTER BREW ALL MALT LAGER 

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I remember very little about this beer, Winter of 1998 when was I was transitioning out of new products to some extent-I had been moved to work as an assistant to a Brewing Director for 5 months before being shipped out to the St. Louis Brewery in May of 1998. I still had my hands in new products for a while, as I was transitioning out and the new team was transitioning in.

Like the 3 previous beers, this 1998 Holiday beer was brewed in Merrimack, NH. It was a moderately strong  amber lager, most likely brewed with a lot of 40L crystal malt. But I really don’t remember much at all about this one. Looking back on it, I wonder why we didn’t make this beer an ale, like the previous year’s beer.

The Neck Label: Left: “Winterbrew is an all-malt brew with a  full-bodied taste and a rich amber color. It’s moderate hopping provides a nice balance to the sweet taste of the malt.” Right: “The use of generous amounts of specialty malts and an extended layering period make this a truly special brew, a great match for your holiday feasts”.

This was the last Holiday beer for a few years-in the early 2000s, AB started doing them again, I remember a high end, higher alcohol Budweiser beer in beautiful 750 ml bottle, and the next year a Michelob vanilla/ and bourbon barrel aged beer, but I wasn’t involved in those projects.