Casual beer drinkers are often surprised to learn that Anheuser-Busch owns many breweries in many locations and the Budweiser that they drink in Maryland is made at a different brewery from the one that they drank on a ski trip in Colorado. That’s exactly how A-B wants it.
Consistency Is Key
The Budweiser brand, as well as all of the other brands the brewing giant controls, is worth a lot of money to them. It represents years of careful marketing and the company’s financial future. Therefore they want consumers to know that when they pop the top on a bottle or order it on draft that it will have the same flavors, aromas and other qualities of every Budweiser that consumer has ever had. While the A-B delivery trucks proudly proclaim that Budweiser is “crisp, clean, and refreshing” consistency is perhaps the most important aspect of the equation.
Maintaining this all-important consistency is no small feat. The various beers are carefully and constantly tasted to make sure that they fit Anheuser-Busch’s established profiles. During a recent trip to St. Louis for A-B’s Brewer’s Heritage Festival I was invited along with some other beer writers to visit their tasting room at their headquarters. We were there to try the new Budweiser American Ale that was to be released in October 2008, but we also received a brief presentation about the rigorous tastings all A-B products undergo.
Tasting the Beer
Tastings are carried out daily at three in the afternoon. The weekly schedule is as follows: On Mondays they taste their international beers. Tuesday is a “catch-all” day where the focus could be on the Michelob line of beers, the Natural line, the Busch line, etc. On Wednesday they taste their Chinese beers and they end the week by tasting Bud Light on Thursday and Budweiser on Friday.
Since we happened to be there on Friday St. Louis Sr. Brewmaster Greg Sullentrop and Jane Killebrew-Galeski, Sr. Director of New Products for Brewing, described how a typical Budweiser tasting would go. Fifteen breweries make Budweiser – twelve in the U.S. plus the research brewery in St. Louis, the Stag brewery in London and the Wuhan brewery in China – and samples from each are flown in to be tasted. The fifteen 47 degree Fahrenheit samples are poured and presented in as an identical way as possible then brought into the tasting room. The specifically chosen tasting glasses are straight edged and cleaned to exacting standards with filtered water. Each glass is filled to about a third to half full with beer poured into the center of the glass so it foams to the top then collapses.
The tasting panel is made up of Sullentrop or another brewer, VP of brewing, VP of operations and various directors including Killebrew-Galeski. They make notes about each on laptops which allows their comments to be uploaded to the brewers at each brewery as soon as possible. The tasters carefully examine the beers’ appearance, aroma and flavor. They also give each beer an overall score.
The scoring system is one that A-B has been using for more than thirty years. It is a one to five scale with the apparent focus on hitting the middle ground as opposed to the highest score. According Sullentrop the best hoped for score is 3.0. Scores of 3.1 through 3.3 are perfectly acceptable. Beers that hit 3.4 or 3.5 aren’t considered to be quite as good as the standard and 3.6 or higher have issues that require attention. The score is a subjective, overall judgment of the beer and is not a sum of the ranking individual characteristics of the beer.
This is an unusual scoring system but when you consider the product it makes sense. Budweiser is not an extreme beer so assuming that scores of four or five mean big flavors then it’s understandable that these would be bad scores. The other end of the scale, presumably, is water – no taste, no flavor. So scores below three would also be bad because Anheuser-Busch drinkers would like to taste something. But that’s speculation on my part. It was not clear how this system works so it could be that high and low numbers represent extremes of equally harsh or repulsive characteristics.
Once the beers and comments have been entered they are uploaded to each brewery and the panel’s work is done. The breweries then make any adjustments that are deemed necessary and another week’s worth of brewing gets underway until the next tasting.