The Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group Beers Before My Time-Pt. 2: Red Wolf

Right around the same time AB came out with the Elk Mountain beers, the beers I discussed in my last post, they also released a new amber lager called Red Wolf.

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The origin of this beer is what I consider a classic AB moment, at least the way I heard the story. Back in late 1994 or early 1995, someone at AB caught wind that Miller would be releasing a beer called Red Dog, and this caused quite a ruckus. Executives at AB always paid a lot of attention to what Miller was doing, what kind of beers they were releasing, and then tried to find ways to release beers specifically to compete with those new Miller beers. Miller was AB’s top competition at the time, and really was the only brewer standing in the way of AB reaching that magic 100 million barrel mark and becoming 50% of the US beer market. Some examples of the beers AB developed to compete with Miller included the Michelob Golden Draft beer, which was specifically targeted at Miller Genuine Draft (both “MGD”, get it?), and all the “bottled” draft beers (read: “unpasteurized and sterile/ aseptically packaged”) that came out after Miller started focusing an their “draft” beer in a can/bottle. These brands were called “Strategic” brands or “Competitive” brands, and it was usually the way AB approached innovation, which, for someone like me, who was trying to be creative, kind of sucked. The competition between these two companies was fierce at times. Another fuel addition to the fire was that Red Dog was marketed as being brewed by the “Plank Road Brewery”-this kind of subterfuge was something that AB railed against back in the day, which kind of surprised me when they started coming out with their own stealth “breweries” about the time I was leaving. Thank goodness I didn’t leave to go to Miller, as anyone who announced they were leaving AB for Miller was quickly escorted off the premises by security and not allowed back on site.

So in the case of Red Wolf, the way the story goes, is that some executive level people found out Miller was going to release a new beer called Red Dog. And mistakenly, they assumed Red Dog would be a red beer. This was at the time were ambers and reds were taking off with microbrews, so the logic made sense, but was absolutely wrong. Once that assumption had been made, the mission then became to beat Miller to it by coming out with their own red beer, the beer that became “Red Wolf”, a name that was a direct shot at the name “Red Dog”. At the time, I heard that this was the fastest new beer rollout in AB’s history, it was on the market in weeks, or maybe 1-2 months after the concept was developed. I can’t imagine what these AB folks thought when they found out Miller’s Red Dog Beer was a standard American Lager! And I remember in subsequent taste panels, many folks at AB suspected it had been formulated to taste like Budweiser.

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For the recipe, Red Wolf used two of AB’s American Lager brands blended for the base beer and caramel malt extract to provide the color and flavor. This was a malt extract that came from the UK, and I remember the beer having a distinctly sweet caramel flavor. As an interesting side note, using a core beer as the base to build other beers like this was not usually the way AB did things at the time, most brands were brewed in the brewhouse as their own brand. So yes, Budweiser, Busch and Michelob all had their own specific grain recipes, hop recipes, and brewhouse recipes. Same with Bud Light, Natural Light and Busch Light. So the Homer Simpson Duff Beer gag where the same beer supplies several “different” faucets was really not the AB way.

 

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Looking at my recipe spreadsheet that just has the basics of these brands, AB characterized Red Wolf as an American Red Lager, a style that didn’t exist prior to its release, unless one counts Carlsberg’s Elephant Red, which wasn’t really an “American” Lager. Grains in Red Wolf included 2-Row Malt, 6-Row Malt, grits and rice. This was reflective of the 2 beers that were used for the blend, AB didn’t brew any beers where both rice and corn were used in the brewhouse process. For the hop bill, it just says “lots” which means a lot of varieties, not that it was brewed with a large quantity of hops. This was standard AB practice for their American lagers: 6-10+ hop varieties could be used in any single brand, and the recipes could change frequently, which was why no one wanted to publicize the hops in Red Wolf. It was 5.5% abv, 15 IBUs and 15 °L in color. I remember the first time I tasted Red Wolf, it was in the Brewmaster’s taste panel at AB’s Ft. Collins Brewery, and I thought it was godawful sweet. But in later tastes it was more balanced with a crisper finish, so I believe the Caramel Malt Extract addition had been reduced a bit.

When I got to the Specialty Brewing Group in 1995, Red Wolf had been out for a few months and there were some big marketing pushes behind it. This beer had more merchandise created for it than any other brand in the Specialty Brewing Group portfolio. It was a very heavily marketed beer, I still have my Red Wolf jacket and Red Wolf gym bag at home. The beer itself appealed to (some) craft beer drinkers, and also appealed to the slightly more adventurous of the American Lager fan base. It was the best selling release from the Specialty Brewing Group for a while (soon after Michelob Amber Bock was released though, it overtook Red Wolf). But for a while, Red Wolf was very hot, and there was serious talk of doing some brand extensions on it-beers like Black Wolf, Brown Wolf, White Wolf and Gold Wolf were discussed as potential extensions of the Red Wolf family.  But the expansion never came to fruition, primarily because of the development of the Michelob Specialty line, which I will discuss in a future post.

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group Beers Before My Time-Pt. 2: Red Wolf

  1. James Canary

    I worked at AB during this time period and can testify it was quite frustrating to many of the employees who worked there. We had the ability and the desire to create more innovative and diverse beers. However, the corporation was so incredibly conservative and focused on extremely small variations to the core pale lager style. Red Wolf was a radical departure from that marketing philosophy. If only AB had focused more on creative brewing exemplified by the early beers in the Specialty Group (‘Faust’, ‘Muenchener’, and ‘Black & Tan’.) I still have a shirt with some of the ‘American Originals’ logos.

    As a lover of fermented malt beverages (many different styles) I am so pleased to be retired and live in a time when there is a cornucopia of styles in the market place — especially the small, more creative breweries.

  2. Eric Branchaud

    How serendipitous! I just had a “whatever happened to Red Wolf?” moment this past weekend. I admit to drinking my fair share in college. I’ve even toyed with the idea of brewing a clone. Do you think a malt bill of 6-row & rice with a splash of C-80 would get passably close?

  3. Gary Gillman

    I always learn a lot from these posts, e.g. the use of 6-10 hop varieties. It makes sense from the standpoint that if 1 or 2 hops becomes unavailable in a 2- or 3-hop beer, you don’t lose your keynote flavour. Similar logic was used to build the main brands of Scotch (blended) whisky. When I read that the new Ballantine India Pale Ale used a half-dozen hops or more I was puzzled since historical recipes for the beer in Mitch’s book never used that many. But the “blending” philosophy – considering too its Pabst we are talking about – probably explains it.

    I recall these “Red” beers and I guess I was on the side of the craft market which didn’t think much of them, but I take James Canary’s points nonetheless. To this day I cannot understand why A-B did not place a much larger emphasis on crafted beers, beers without malt extract or grain adjunct for one thing, and also, beers with a larger IBU content. Possibly in time something would have emerged to replace Budweiser and Bud Light. There would have been no need to spend so much money buying craft breweries.

    I always wonder about its ex-brewmasters, not Mitch (too young), but those now in their late 60’s and 70’s+, what he has called “old-school German brewmasters”. These guys surely must have appreciated the great lagers of Germany, or Pilsner Urquell, and the great top-fermented beers of England. Or had they all bought in to the AAL philosophy after years in St. Louis and the satellite breweries? If it was the former, why didn’t they have more influence on what the company was selling? My personal view is, A-B was such an old company that the memory of what traditional lager and ale tasted like was too remote. Beer from the nascent craft breweries was probably dismissed as home-brewing-type efforts when in fact (at their best) these beers were restoring tradition. Perhaps, in a word, A-B, and Miller, were convinced AAL was the ultimate perfection of how beer should taste. And that worked for generations, until it stopped working quite as well…

    Gary

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