Tag Archives: Anheuser-Busch

Beers from my past-Pt 1: The Anheuser-Busch American Originals

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I’ve been getting pinged a lot lately in Social Media about the recent re-introduction of Anheuser-Busch’s Faust Lager. This spurred me to go into our garage over the Thanksgiving weekend and pull out a bunch of the stuff I saved from my time in New Products at Anheuser-Busch.  It was a great trip down memory lane, I actually saved quite a bit from that time, including full bottles of just about every beer I worked on in my 3 years in Corporate Brewing and a lot of the marketing materials we developed.  I decided it might be fun to write about these beers and some other beers that I’ve been involved with brewing over the years. This is the first in the series, there will be several more. I’ll try to relay what I remember as the story for each one of these beers-as every beer has it’s own unique history.

In 1995, after 3 years of working as a brewing supervisor in AB’s Ft Collins Brewery, I was asked if I’d be interested in moving to St. Louis and working in Corporate Brewing in Mike Meyer’s Brewing Process Technology Group, which was primarily a brewing engineering projects group, but also had the fledging new products group as well. The brewing managers involved in new products were considered part of Anheuser-Busch’s Specialty Brewing Group-which wasn’t really a separate entity, but included our group and folks from marketing working together to create  the brewing process and marketing campaigns for these new beers.

When I interviewed for the job, AB had just recently released their first forays into Specialty Beers (we did not call them “craft” or “micro brewed”):  Elk Mountain Ale, Elk Mountain Red Lager and Crossroads (a German Hefeweizen) were most certainly inspired by the growing craft brewing movement, while Michelob Amber Bock and Red Wolf were more American Lager style “crossover” beers. More on these beers later.

While I interviewed, I learned about the latest project, The American Originals project-a marketing effort to reintroduce some long forgotten brands from AB’s pre-prohibition portfolio. I loved the hoppy Elk Mountain Ale, and the opportunity to dive into the history of AB and recreate some very interesting beers seemed like a really cool opportunity. So I was thrilled when I was offered the job, and we left Colorado to move to St. Louis.

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The original lineup proposed for the American Originals included Faust, Muenchener, Black&Tan, Bock and Union Man’s Favorite Lager.

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Here’s a list of lager beer styles brewed by AB in its history. Not all these beers fit into traditional beer style categories, obviously.

When I got to St. Louis, Dan Kahn and Paul Mancuso had already developed test brews and had mostly completed the recipes for the first three American Originals beers: Faust Lager, Muenchener, and Black & Tan Porter. Dan had just been promoted to be the Executive Assistant to Gerhard Kraemer, then VP of Brewing, and I was taking his place on the team. My job was to work with Dan and Paul to finish the recipes and get them out to the Merrimack and Fairfield breweries for brewing.

The story told about the American Originals beers was that AB found old recipes from Adolphus Busch in their archives, and used his handwritten recipes to recreate some of the more flavorful beers that existed before prohibition. But what we brewers actually saw during the development of these beers was just a small notebook of Adolphus Busch’s in which he scribbled down malt and hops for some of these early beers. The notes were very vague, giving pounds of German hops, or American hops, and weights of malts which had very little descriptors. They weren’t recipes by any means, and so the decision was made to brew beers “in the style” of the originals, based on what little recipe information and marketing and tasting comments we had access to. This made for some awkward conversations and interviews about the origins of these beers.

AB had a Corporate Archives room underneath the big tour center in the St. Louis Brewery. And we also had a Corporate Historian, Bill Vollmar, who was heavily involved in developing the campaigns for these beers, and later supported them with travel to the various tastings held in Seattle and Denver. Bill was an interesting guy, he knew his history, and enjoyed traveling around and showing people some of the things he had in the archives, like the old pocketknife that Adolphus Busch used to give out to customers that had a little picture of himself on the inside that could be seen by looking through a small sight glass in the body of the knife.

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An 1893 letter written by Adolphus Busch copied from the archives. He was complaining about a counterfeit Budweiser being brewed in the west.

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The cover of the American Originals Sell In pamphlet. Most of the beers never made the cut, though there was a lot of interest in White Label Exquisite and Old Burgundy Lager

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There were a lot of beers that were considered for the American Originals lineup, but eventually only 4 brews were made before the series was canned in favor of the Michelob Specialty Beers Series: Faust, Muenchener, Black &Tan and later, American Hop Ale, which was brewed instead of Old Burgundy Lager or White Label Exquisite because I suggested we brew a really hoppy ale using only American hops that were available in the 1890’s (Cluster and Fuggle). I will write about each of those beers individually in my next post.

Why did the series fail? Lots of reasons, but for one I think the lineup was largely uninteresting to craft beer drinkers. It didn’t help that the first two cities we rolled these beers out to were Denver and Seattle, cities that were already well entrenched in craft brewed ales. Lager beers like Faust or Muenchener had little hope of making a dent in those markets. I question why we didn’t focus these beers in the midwest, they weren’t even available in St. Louis for quite a while after the first release, which made absolutely zero sense to me.

Another reason is simply the dynamics of AB’s marketing department. The marketing team that introduced the American Originals eventually got promoted to bigger and better things, and then new managers were brought in. New managers that wanted to “hit their own home run” as we used to say. They weren’t interested in perpetuating someone else’s project, so they came up with their own ideas. If you look at AB’s specialty beer/new beer releases over the recent years, you will see drastic shifts in direction about every 2 years. A lot of that has to do with the revolving door of the marketing team.

And really, what craft beer aficionado wanted to drink specialty beers from Anheuser-Busch? Very few craft beer fans would even give them a shot. This was a real learning experience for AB, and prompted the investments in Widmer and Redhook later in the 1990’s.

And finally, in the AB culture at that time, everything revolved around Budweiser. We couldn’t talk about these beers on their own, all conversations had to relate back to the Budweiser quality message and the rich traditional German brewing heritage that AB had. While it was a good, strong message, I believe it also derailed any efforts made for these beers to have any substantial impact. Wholesalers had more incentives to place Budweiser, and later, in one of the most disheartening conversations I ever had with marketing, I was told that AB did not want to grow the specialty category.

Next Post: The 4 American Orginals Beers: Faust, Muenchener, Black&Tan, and American Hop Ale.

 

 

 

 

 

What is quality?

I fell into an interesting discussion on Facebook yesterday that was started by Gary Spedding, a long time colleague who runs Brewing and Distilling Analytical Services, a company in Kentucky that can do complete analysis on beer, spirits, and other beverages.
Gary referenced this Article and also a talk from Michael Lewis, my brewing professor at UC Davis back in the 1980’s, at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, DC, that was critical of craft beer quality in general.

Michael Lewis’ talk at the CBC was quite provocative, which I’m sure was his intent. He scolded the craft brewing community for being smug in our success, and cited that most craft brewers don’t have the wherewithal to really deal with important quality issues, especially those that could hurt the consumer. And when compared to large and/or well established brewers across the world, he is absolutely right. Now to be clear, there’s no microorganism that can grow in beer that can make people sick, which is just one reason why it is such an amazing drink. But his examples included bursting bottles, which some of us have had to deal with, and also the rampant use of herbs, spices, foods, and other botanicals in beers. Brewers sometimes don’t list their unusual ingredients that could potentially make some people sick. And he has a point. With the exception of Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and some of the other brewers who have graduated from microbrewery status to “Regional Craft Brewery”, most of the smaller brewers in the USA have very rudimentary labs, don’t really analyze their beers, and don’t necessarily do all the due diligence required when adding an an unusual ingredient to their beers.

As Gary Spedding points out, the TTB, which governs brewers and approves formulations (recipes) for beer, especially when the beers include unusual processes or ingredients, is a shrinking agency. Once under the umbrella of the old Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) split off at some point after 9/11, and currently has a very small staff that cannot handle the sheer volume of brewers’ formula approvals that come across their desks. And many smaller brewers, especially those that only sell their beer at their pubs, taste rooms, or just locally, don’t even bother with TTB approval, as long as they have local or state label approval. So there are a lot of beers out there that have ingredients not reviewed by the TTB, which I find a bit unnerving.

So what is a quality beer? It’s different depending on who you ask, which is part of the problem. Some people view quality as pushing the envelope, being creative, and brewing unique, groundbreaking beers. Some, who I refer to as the “style police”, look at a beer with an eye towards accepted style guidelines, and knock a beer if it doesn’t conform to certain style parameters, such as bitterness, sweetness or dryness, malt character, hop intensity and the like. Others look at consistency in beers-does the beer taste the same from batch to batch? I can tell you that this is very important for us at Stone-we want people who are buying a six-pack or case of Stone IPA to know what they are getting, and to get what they expect. A lot of people don’t think American Lagers have any quality, and to me that is a big mistake. Just because someone doesn’t like the flavor of the beer, or the fact it is brewed with cereal grains, doesn’t mean that the beer lacks quality. The consistent flavor of these beers with so little malt and hops flavor is actually quite an amazing technical feat, and it takes a high level of talent and skill to pull it off.

To me, quality means all of the above to a certain extent, plus whether the beer has a proper balance of flavors, and also the absence of off flavors, such as diacetyl (butter), acetaldehyde (green apple, pumpkin seed), phenolic (band-aid), and oxidation/age (cardboard/harsh/stale). Let’s look at a few of these off-flavors in more detail:

Diacetyl:  There are people that say buttery diacetyl is acceptable in some styles, and I call BS on that. In my opinion that’s a cop out. Perhaps that’s because I learned from Dr. Michael Lewis, and Anheuser-Busch, but I cannot drink a beer if it has even the slightest trace of diacetyl. Diacetyl is formed by yeast during fermentation, and is taken up by again and metabolized by yeast during aging, so the resulting beer should have none. Diacetyl in beer can be a result of a fermentation issue, unhealthy yeast, rushing the beer through aging, or in some cases, a bacterial infection. And I cannot stand the movie theatre buttered popcorn flavor in beer that results from diacetyl. When I worked at San Andreas Brewing Company, we used a dry yeast strain (this was before Wyeast and White Labs) and occasionally, one of our flagship beers, Seismic Ale, would throw some diacetyl.  I hated it when this happened, but many customers who came into the pub absolutely loved it. It was quite confounding and frustrating, but we still worked hard to ensure the beer didn’t have diacetyl.

Acetaldehyde is another flavor that results from fermentation issues, and is present in beer either because the beer hasn’t been aged long enough, or if the yeast health is poor, the yeast cells die and burst, releasing this flavor into the beer. In any event, acetaldehyde is hard flavor to discern at lower levels, and is one of the hardest off-flavors to detect and also fix. There is a common misperception that the green apple ester that some people use to describe Budweiser is acetaldehyde. I’ve heard this from very experienced, knowlegable brewing educators, and it is absolutely wrong. Budweiser has the lowest measured acetaldehyde levels of any major American lager brewer, the green apple ester is something else, and this exemplifies some of the confusion about this off-flavor. Not to name any names, but there is one lager brewer who operates in this country whose beer has definite acetaldehyde-and I think it’s a characteristic of their yeast strain, because it’s very consistent in their beers. So is this an off-flavor? To them perhaps not, but I find it unpalatable.

Oxidation: The other off flavor that drives me crazy is excessive age. This exhibits itself as grainy flavors, harsh or cardboard/wet paper flavors in beer. As craft brewers have become better educated, I’ve seen a drastic reduction in instances of diacetyl or acetaldehyde, but graininess is still something I see a lot, and to me it’s a major flavor flaw. People who drink a lot of import beers have become accustomed to this flavor, and may even find it desirable in some cases. And craft brewers are among the worst offenders of beer freshness. Many assign 6 month to one year code dates on their beers, without really testing, let alone considering, what the beer will taste like after that much time sitting on a dusty shelf. I can tell you, beer with any hop character is going to lose the hops within a couple of months, and will be harsh, grainy and undrinkable very soon after that. This oxidation character can be controlled to a certain extent by keeping beer free of oxygen post-fermentation and during packaging, but many small brewers lack the technical skill to measure dissolved oxygen, let alone control it during packaging or fixing the situation when oxygen levels are high.

Beer drinkers, by and large, are not familiar enough yet with these off flavors to make an accurate judgement as to whether the beers have quality issues or not. And that is because large brewers, who many people grew up with, are technically skilled enough to prevent off flavors in their beers. So people aren’t used to tasting beers with off flavors, and often can’t identify off flavors when they are present. And so they base quality on other things, like uniqueness, hoppiness, maltiness, unique sour character, or simply whether they like the beer or not. However, at some point, as the less experienced consumers become better educated about beer, low quality beers with high levels of off flavors are going to turn some people off, and that could have a negative effect on the whole industry,

Here’s the real issue: With so many breweries popping up right now, which in general is a good thing and is very exciting to me, there are some breweries that have brewers who lack the education, experience, or sensory acumen to ensure consistency and prevention of off flavors in their beers. I can’t count how many small breweries I’ve visited that don’t even have a microscope or pH meter in their facility, and this makes me nervous. Brewers that believe they can judge their beer’s quality by sensory analysis alone are missing the boat, there are some basics regarding Quality Assurance that absolutely must be adhered to. I remember seeing a presentation by Ruth Martin at Sierra Nevada, where she outlined what a craft brewer’s quality regimen should be as they grow and expand their distribution. It was a very gratifying talk for me, because we had been growing our quality program very closely to what Ruth recommended, and we continue to so so.

I remember, many years ago, I walked into a brewpub, and talked to the brewer, who had just been hired on. He had been a line cook in the establishment’s restaurant, and when the previous brewer left, they gave him the brewer’s position, despite the fact he had no experience brewing beer, or any technical education at all. And this situation made me very upset. First, it annoys me that some brewery owners see so little value in brewing experience and will hire people that don’t know what they are doing. A brewer has to be many things, and recipe creator is just a small part of the job. If the brewer doesn’t have a good understanding of the importance of cleanliness and sanitation, off-flavors, how they are caused and what can be done to remedy them, brewery safety, yeast management, etc. the beer is going to suffer. Secondly, this poor kid had no clue about brewing, beer styles, ingredients, and what makes a quality beer. He was put in a position to fail, and that angered me.

Unfortunately, as the craft brewing industry is enjoying a nice boom right now, a lot of people are starting breweries that just don’t understand how critical it is to have someone who knows how to brew at the helm. And too many people are starting breweries because they have money and think it would be cool, vs. having a real passion for beer and the art and science of brewing. And I think that’s sad, and potentially damaging to the industry.

 

The Anheuser-Busch Conclave (aka the worst plane ride ever)

I don’t know if they still are doing this, but mid-July was always the time of year when Anheuser-Busch held their “Brewmasters’ Conclave”, usually in Williamsburg, VA at their Kingsmill Resort. For a younger brewing manager, climbing the corporate ladder, this series of meetings that spanned several days provided a whole range of emotions, including inspiration, amazement, and also, to no small extent, a certain degree of terror.

The Conclave was set up so that Brewmasters, the Brewing Scientists, and Ingredient Managers (AB had employees at the Director Level who were in charge of hops, malt, rice, yeast and water) could present on the latest developments in the industry, and also research projects that they had conducted over the past year. There was always a lot of groundbreaking research being presented, and I always learned a lot. For a mid-level manager like I was in the mid 1990s, it also provided a very real sense of wonder at the technical expertise and the brain power that was in that room. In all seriousness, Anheuser-Busch’s staff of Brewmasters and Brewing Scientists were the best of the best in the world.

The Conclave was a situation where the presenters could sometimes “make” their careers, and also where they could see their careers fall apart. This is because even though it was called “The Brewmaster’s” Conclave, it really was the “August Busch III” conclave. He sat in front center, and basically led the show, drilling each presenter mercilessly with questions. There’s no doubt that August Busch III knew his brewing science, he was amazingly hands-on when it came to beer quality, taste and the science behind the art of making beer. As such, he asked tough, intelligent questions, and it was certainly a badge of honor to survive a presentation at the Conclave without being tripped up, let alone have a successful presentation.

When I was working in Corporate Brewing, I went to the Conclave several times, and I had to give presentations two years in a row. It was always on the subject of our new beer program and the Specialty Brewing Group, going through a list of every new beer that we had in development. We presented on the marketing plan, the recipe, and where the beer was going to be brewed.

The brewmasters from all 12 US breweries and all the International breweries attended, and everyone who worked in Corporate Brewing, R&D or the Brewing Technical Center was flown out on corporate jets from St. Louis. My second time presenting at the Conclave, when the flight schedule was first published, I noticed right away that I was scheduled with about 15 others to fly on the same plane as August Busch III. After I recovered from my shock, I approached the administrative assistant in Corporate Brewing, who was in charge of scheduling the passenger list for each flight, with a desperate plea to put me on another plane, and she told me “oh no, don’t even worry about it, August ALWAYS flies the plane, you won’t even see him”. I felt a little comforted after that, but not much.

As a side note, AAB III is in fact a licensed pilot, and almost always flew the corporate jet when he visited any of the breweries in the AB system, which is why he never tasted the brewery’s beer during a visit. He took it back to St. Louis with him, and tasted it later that evening. And if he didn’t like it, there was hell to pay, but that’s another story. When he was working at the corporate offices in St. Louis, he flew in on a helicopter, and landed on the roof, and then walked to his office on the top floor.

So I took some ribbing from some of my coworkers that morning in July as we waited to board the jets. No one wanted to trade places with me, that’s for sure. I boarded the plane with my coworker in New Products/Specialty Brewing Group and the rest of the unlucky souls, and sure enough, there was August Busch III sitting in the cockpit. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to 2 hours in a plane with a man I considered the one of the most intimidating men in the world so I defintely felt a sense of relief when it looked like he was indeed going to fly the plane.

We take off, get in the air, and lo and behold, the cockpit door opens, and AAB III walks out, and explains that his son Stephen was going to fly the plane so he could “chat” with all of us. Well, my stomach dropped so fast….and he spent the next two hours peppering all the passengers about our beer and their upcoming presentations. When he got to me and my partner, we basically ended up giving him our entire presentation, and he gave us very explicit direction to be sure to include the projected sales margins in the Conclave, which we had to scramble to get as soon as we got off the plane. We survived the flight, but definitely needed a beer when we landed.

We were scheduled to present on Day 3, the last day, which was a half day. Conclave presentations often evolve into very deep follow-up conversations (or grillings), so we were behind schedule on day 3, and VP of Brewing Doug Muhleman approached us and said it looked like our presentation was going to get cut due to time constraints. Believe me, I had mixed feelings about that, but the primary feeling was one of relief. It had been a rough Conclave already, and I didn’t want to end up on the chopping block like some of the others.

At the mid-morning break that 3rd day, I was in the lobby getting a cup of coffee when I turned around and unfortunately, made eye contact  with AAB III. And of course, he noticed me, and came over and said: “hey! when is your presentation?” And when I replied that it had been cut, he said “oh no you don’t…I want to see it”…so I went and told Doug Muhleman, and we were hastily inserted back into the schedule.

The presentation itself went fine, and I made it through with only minor scarring. I don’t remember much of it to be honest. But I remember that flight out to Williamsburg, and probably always will, and I also remember how easy the return flight was, how relaxed, how enjoyable, because the Conclave was over, and I was flying on the plane without the CEO.