"We firmly believe the American public needs to know more about beer," said Doug Muhleman, group vice president of Brewing and Technical Operations for Anheuser-Busch. That was the underlying reason the brewing giant invited a bunch of beer writers to its hop farm in northern Idaho last August.
Facing growing competition from wine and liquor, A-B seems to have come to the realization that it needs craft brewers — and beer writers — to help win back beer’s place as the beverage of choice in the U.S. The only demand they put on us, was to "keep on writing about beer."
Not that they didn’t schmooze us…they did, and a great job they did at it too. The lakeside Coeur d’Alene Resort was impeccable. Our only complaint was we didn’t have more time in a busy schedule to explore and enjoy all the facilities. Two beer dinners, which served as the foil for a variety of new beers, not to mention a salmon barbecue picnic in the hop fields, more than sated our appetites and palates.
What was more impressive, however, was the openness of the corporate folks. The last time A-B reached out to the press — a series of round tables in the mid-1990s — the effort was spearheaded by a marketing team, naturally a little more tight-lipped and nervous than the brewers and hop growers that we writers had access to this time. Back then, A-B folks really didn’t understand the jabs that writers took at "bland" beer. Writers, for their part didn’t understand much about the importance of "big" beer. Most of us have learned by now that you can’t call Bud a bad beer. It’s an incredibly well made beer, even if it doesn’t suit your taste profile.
A-B now understands that the world has changed, and they have hired from the microbrewing ranks to face the challenge. "(We’re attempting to) explore the boundaries of what we’ve done in the past," said Muhleman.
The result of recent explorations were spread before us — a bucket of new brews greeted us in our hotel rooms: organic Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale — both brewed with USDA approved organic malt — and an 8% Blueberry Ale. While the Blueberry Ale, my favorite of the three, was recently test-marketed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, the two organic brews were just launched nationally.
According to the label the beers are brewed by the Green Valley Brewing Co., which somehow resides both at A-B’s Merrimack, NH plant, where the pale ale is brewed and at Fairfield, CA, where the lager is brewed (both breweries are certified organic). This is the type of sleight of hand we’ve seen before in the brewing industry, and A-B is quite frank about their reasons for doing it. Putting A-B on the label, may well be a "turn-off" Muhleman said, pleading that his company is hardly the first to fake a phantom brewery. He also pointed to the widespread practice in the food industry.
While the organic brews had a relatively accessible profile — well-balanced with enough body to satisfy on a hot day — the first two releases of a regional series that each of the 12 A-B breweries will offer to their locals are more tailored to the craft brew palate. Demon’s Hopyard IPA (6.5%), at a respectable 60 IBUs was the winner of a consumer poll of three beers made at the Merrimack, N.H. plant and will be sold on draft in New England. Burnin’ Helles, a malty, Maibock-y lager (7%) was the winner of a similar website-based consumer contest in Ohio. The plan is for the other breweries to come up with a beer, decided on by special brewer think tanks being set up at each location.
We also sampled a true Bavarian-style Hefe-Weizen, reminiscent of the "Crossroads," which, released in the mid-’90s, was way ahead of its time and died a quick death in the marketing department; and a fairly rich porter, which, along with Amber Bock, Pale Ale, Marzen (Oktoberfest), will make up new Michelob Sampler 12- and 18-packs.
Also causing a stir on the writers’ jaded palates was Celebrate Chocolate, a beer aged on cocoa beans, not as sweet or as strong (8.5%) as its older sister, the bourbon barrel-aged Celebrate Vanilla Oak (10%) that debuted last year. The two will be sold this holiday season in 24-oz. gift packs with a glass.
Seasonal drafts Beach Bum Lager, Spring Heat Wheat (the brewers pleaded they don’t name the beers) were also in evidence. Jack’s Pumpkin Spice, the fall seasonal has been released this year in bottles as well as on tap.
Many of the new recipes have been tweaked by Florian Kuplent, a native of Munich, Germany who has brewed in Germany, Belgium, the UK and the U.S. The rest of the A-B entourage included Nathaniel Davis, a Canadian by birth, who once brewed at the Arctic Brewing Co. in the Northwest Territories and was the former staff brewmaster for New Product Development and Innovations Group at A-B’s corporate headquarters in St. Louis before becoming Muhleman’s executive assistant. Something of a troubadour, Nate teamed up one night with Celebrator’s Tom Dalldorf for an impromptu guitar serenade; yours truly jumped in on flute.
Also, George Reisch, another corporate A-B brewmaster, is a fifth generation brewmaster whose family owned and operated Reisch Brewing Co. in Springfield, IL. When it closed in 1966, George’s dad went to work for Pabst; Willy Buholzer, a gentle German, runs A-B’s hop farm in Bavaria. His father ran the farm before him and supervised A-B’s hop purchasing for more than 40 years; Dr. Val Peacock is a walking hop encyclopedia; he primed us on the background and status of 50-plus varieties of hops grown in the world.
There were various "communications managers" present coordinating the visit, but they stayed mainly in the background, allowing their brewing staff to punch up personalities into A-B’s normally faceless facade.
One such colorful personality was Brad Studer, a native of the area, and general manager of the Elk Mountain Hop Farm. On the 2-hour bus ride to the fields he gave us plenty of local color and a few hunting stories to go along with it. Apparently, we were in Grizzly country! He said one Grizzly had been in the area bothering some cattle. How exactly does a Grizzly "bother" cattle, we wondered?
The hop fields, like most things A-B, are impressive. Elk Mountain actually consists of two farms, 10 miles apart in the beautiful Kootenai Valley, right up against the Canadian border. Why did A-B pick this remote area to develop a hop farm 20 years ago? Because it is the same exact latitude as the famous Hallertauer hop region in Germany, perfect for growing the fabled Hallertauer Mittlefruh hop, as well as the Saaz hop favored for Budweiser. The farms’ 1,700 acres of hops make it the largest single hop farm in the world.
Harvesting had just commenced — we were free to plunder the fields, squeeze the hop cones and wear hop wreaths to our hearts contents. We saw at work combines that begin the cone-stripping process in the fields and we saw the more traditional method of cutting by machete the full 18-ft vines and transporting them by flatbread truck into the plant for processing. After the cones are separated from the vines, they are quickly dried, pressed, sacked and shipped out to palletizing plants wherein their flavor will be preserved.
We were shown the migrant workers quarters, provided with full facilities including childcare, allowing parents to work rotating shifts until the non-stop 2-week harvest is done. Like most of A-B’s full-time employees, the harvesters have no reason to quit or not to come back each year.
On the hotel shuttle back to the airport, I found myself trying to explain hops to a couple of passengers. It’s true, I thought, people need to know more about beer.
I also reflected, "Wow, I didn’t have to drink a Bud the whole time." As Muhleman said, "We’re not worried about the generations of Bud drinkers. We’re worried about people who are drinking something else." Indeed, something other than beer.