Our first clue at just how carefully guarded a place the brewery really is comes with an off-hand comment: “Someone will have to go let Peter in.” The man in question is Peter Wolfe, Anheuser-Busch’s top hop scientist/researcher, and the place is Anheuser’s Research Pilot Brewery (RPB) in St. Louis, a small, experimental facility attached to the main brewery. But the implication is surprising: Wolfe, a top-ranking researcher in the organization, doesn’t have a key to the pilot facility, and it’s not a simple oversight. Access to the “RPB” really is that carefully guarded. And so, when I received an invitation to explore (and brew!) at the RPB, I wasn’t about to turn it down.
The history-steeped Budweiser brewhouse
Given my background, though, it was a little surprising to ever receive that invitation. As someone who spends a lot of time writing about craft beer, I’ve never been shy with my opinion on macro brewers—I make a point of not buying beer from them for a variety of reasons, many of them business and politics-related. But the people at AB-Inbev are anything but fools: They do their research and knew full well who they were inviting into their pilot brewery. I saw that as an act of good faith, and I was happy to accept the invitation with a natural curiosity toward seeing the “belly of the beast.” I may not pick up a six-pack of Bud when I’m at the supermarket, but I appreciated the fact that they still trusted my objectivity enough to invite me (along with a few other journalists) to see a facility that very few have had a chance to tour.
Any discussion of the RPB will center around brewmaster Roderick Read, a friendly, outgoing brewing professional who looks even younger than his 30 years. A graduate of the U.C. Davis brewing program, he’s been in the RPB ever since he was hired, working his way up the ladder while working on the development of new products. His passion for all styles of beer is clear within moments of meeting him for the first time, as is his love for the job—the brewery is clearly both his office and his playground. He doesn’t even get enough of it at the office, still finding time to make batches of homebrew on his days off.
Research Pilot Brewery brewmaster Rod Read in his element
The stated function of the pilot brewery since 1981 has been raw material testing, along with being a training ground for brewing professionals. It’s in this location that brewers have Anheuser’s #1 slogan drilled into their heads, that a consistent product is their ultimate goal. They test those capabilities by brewing Budweiser regularly, and the resulting beer is tasted and measured against Anheuser breweries from around the country and the world in a weekly panel. These tastings are handled with the gravest of (professional) sobriety.
“If I can make a Bud here that measures up at the weekly panel, that’s a validation for me,” Read said. “I can’t expect to be able to make an imperial stout or molé beer here if I can’t make a Budweiser that tastes just as good as the ones made anywhere else.”
Those references to imperial stouts or beers replicating the flavors of Mexican molé sauce aren’t just hypotheticals—Read really does make those recipes, among others, as he tests the capabilities of his system and produces prototypes for hypothetical future Anheuser brands. At a media dinner, he broke out a variety of his latest brews, from a hoppy lager to an English pale ale, coffee beer and the already-cited imperial stout. All of them measure up favorably to commercial examples from prominent craft brewers, some of them even more than “favorably.” The imperial stout in particular would do well in blind taste-testing against stouts from just about any craft brewer in the country.
The most obvious question, then, is why consumers have never seen a world-class imperial stout as a commercial offering from Anheuser, if they’re more than capable of producing one. Beyond those extremes, where’s the Anheuser IPA? The pale ale? Did Budweiser American Ale really go over that badly, back in 2008? And if Read was ever dead-set on getting one of his best ales onto store shelves, is there anything he can personally do to make that happen?
The brewmaster’s response to those questions tends to be “Anything’s possible.” As he elaborated, “Everything we make has a possibility of being launched, but we have to find a brand that’s capable of doing that, or maybe a new brand. When we did Johnny Appleseed for example, we came up with a whole new brand family for that launch.” When asked if any current Anheuser-operated brand could conceivably launch an imperial stout-style beer, Read’s response is likewise noncommittal: “At this point … I think there’s always a possibility,” he said. “We did do something like the Chocolate Wheat with our Shock Top line, so we never know what other brand might want to broaden its horizons.”
As for the products currently on store shelves that began their lives in the RPB, it includes plenty of recognizable brands: New line extensions in the Shock Top series, Budweiser Platinum and Black Crown, Select 55 and even the non-beer “Lime-a-Rita” were created here by a combination of brewers and flavor scientists working hand in hand. Ideas come from everywhere: Read, his staff, the researchers and corporate executives all make suggestions for the next project.
“Sometimes it’s just us playing around, like that’s how Shock Top Pretzel Wheat was first created,” Read said. “Or it could be the flavor house coming to us and saying ‘Hey, we’ve got this great flavor that we want to try out.’ Or they’ll come to us and ask ‘That clove flavor came through really well on the saison you made, how did you get it?’ It may not be the eventual product that is produced commercially, but we’re certainly drawing inspiration from it.”
In terms of how it actually feels to walk through the guts of the Research Pilot Brewery, it’s not too different from the tours you’ve taken of your local craft brewer, with a few notable exceptions. They work with a 15 barrel brewhouse, a fairly standard size among small to mid-sized American craft brewers. There’s a bit more automation and technological access, but also a certain hominess to the surroundings. The fact that the solution here to issues such as grain being stuck in the dispenser is still “you’ve got to whack it a bit” certainly feels reassuringly familiar to anyone who’s spent some time in a brewery setting.
Likewise, the access to Anheuser funding means the RPB typically will want for nothing in terms of unique ingredients—I spotted everything from insanely spicy ghost peppers to tequila barrel staves in the same facility where they keep the mountains of rice used as an adjunct in Budweiser. The cognitive dissonance is palpable.
Tequila-aged Budweiser, anyone?
There are a few differences that might shock a craft brewer, however. Chief among them is the realization of just how much beer waste there is in every batch at the RPB. Because the facility brews so often, and because its brews are used for taste-testing and are not commercially distributed, very little of each 15-barrel batch is actually needed. Ultimately, only around four cases of a typical batch are even bottled—that’s about 10 gallons, or twice the amount that many homebrewers make at a time on their stovetops. As a percentage of the complete batch, it’s 2.2 percent, with everything else is simply poured down the drain.
It’s the equivalent of a homebrewer making a typical 5-gallon batch, filling one 12 oz. bottle and dumping the rest, except on a much bigger scale. When asked about that degree of waste, we were told it’s simply “the price of innovation,” and obviously much better than dumping batches on the much larger main brewing equipment in the regular brewery. You can’t really blame Read, who is simply working on the system he has access to, while simultaneously requesting a smaller one where he’ll be able to do even more adventurous experiments with less waste. But the numbers would surely shock a fledgling craft brewer who is working in a little brewpub on a 2-barrel system, with no room for error or waste.
If there’s one thing that no one in their right mind would question about Anheuser’s facility and staff, it’s the professionalism and dedication to consistency and quality. It’s no secret that the company hires the best brewers in the world, and not surprising that the biggest beer company in the country would have the resources to acquire the best and most thoroughly educated. One need only look at the legacy of brewers who left Anheuser to open craft breweries, from Mitch Steele at Stone Brewing Co. to Florian Kuplent at Urban Chestnut, right in AB’s back yard. They’re the best in the world at producing the styles of beer they choose to produce, and one of the keys to that quality is the “220” tasting panel.
Named after the one-time phone extension to the room where it was held, the 220 taste panel is how the company maintains precise control over the consistency of their product. Around a board room table, a panel of eight to 12 “key tasters” will meet to compare Budweiser and Bud Light bottles from around the country and indeed the world, evaluating them for microscopic chemical imperfections that, in actuality, most people would never be able to discern. Both men and women are represented and ultimately required, in order to get a full range of potential taste receptors in the mix.
“It’s a 10 point scale, and I always strive to be above a 7,” Read said. “8-plus is almost flawless. You almost never see a 9. Key taster scores are what I get graded on, because they know the profile of Bud better than you can imagine. We each know our own tasting abilities very well. For example, I’m very sensitive to oxidation but not sensitive at all to some sulfur compounds. It comes down to genetic variation, which is why the panel has a range of key tasters.”
Unsurprisingly, these tasting are very serious business, considering the economies of scale at play. A single bad batch would result in dumping thousands of gallons of beer, and woe to the brewer who allows a bad batch to happen on his or her watch. There’s a reason that Read and the AB execs refer to the small room next door to the tasting area as the “cry room”—its phone is the one that will ring if something is seriously amiss, and that’s not a position you want to be in.
Accordingly, everything gets tasted. Everything. As I watched the room be prepared for a later tasting, half a dozen different bottles of water were brought in for tasting. These are samples of water being used in every step of the process that might come into contact with the finished beer. Key tasters will examine the mash water. They’ll taste the sparge water. They’ll taste the bottle-washing water and the carbonated blending water, all to ensure that no impurities are being added to the finished product anywhere in the process. It’s industrialized anal retentiveness that still retains a human touch—it is, after all, based exclusively on human taste buds in the end.
The infamous water tasting
Ultimately, Anheuser’s pilot brewery is a place that can’t help but impress in its capabilities and professionalism. The brewers there are capable of making traditional beer styles that can compete with any craft brewer, under brewmaster Rod Read. One gets the sense that if this man was in charge of other aspects of operation in addition to brewing, the company could make serious inroads in establishing its own in-house, Anheuser-branded “craft” brews. There are, after all, plenty of craft beer drinkers out there who take the stance of “If it tastes good, I don’t care where it’s from.” I’m not personally one of those drinkers, but I have to admit that if Rod Read’s imperial stout were bottled, there are many craft beer drinkers who would buy it. If it were up to Read, drinkers would undoubtedly get that chance, but for now those beers will continue to be enjoyed exclusively by the brewery staff and company execs.
There’s certainly no lack of passion here. As previously mentioned, one of the brewmaster’s chief weekend hobbies is still homebrewing, which I honestly find shocking, given that he spends all day making beer at work. The fact that he loves what he does to such a degree is something easy to admire.
“It’s a good experience to still use your own innovation on a small scale,” he said. “You can connect with the art and the passion on a much more intimate level while homebrewing, and many of our employees agree. The yearly homebrewing competition has hundreds of entries because people here are passionate about all kinds of beer. I think everyone should try it at least once.”
You’re still not likely to find me drinking Budweiser, but in that opinion, we agree.
Legend has it that if you carry a Miller Lite past the threshold, the eagle guardian will begin to weep beechwood-aged tears.