The words of Mark Yocum, Director of Quality for North America at Anheuser-Busch InBev, at the recent Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Asheville, North Carolina. The full quote: “The quality of the rice we use is high, therefore rice is not inexpensive at all. You know that with a light lager, there is not a place to hide – and rice is susceptible to off-flavours. The oil in rice can go rancid. People say we add rice because it’s cheap. This isn’t true.” The tone of these comments were light-hearted rather than hackles-up defensive, but you got the sense that Mark was keen to make a point about one of the much-stated perceived negatives of Budweiser. Of course – he’s not going to stand up there and state that they use the cheapest discount rice, purely as a filler ingredient, but there you go. I’m guessing if your rice has the chance to go rancid, that would pretty much be the same thing – but clearly AB-InBev keep a close eye on things when it comes to one of the more contentious adjuncts around. If you’re going to use rice, at least make sure it’s in decent nick.
Mark’s talk, though, was fascinating – in a room full of beer writers he discussed the step-by-step QA process that goes into ensuring each Bud comes out the same as every other, irrespective of where in the world it is produced. Pretty openly, he batted out statements like the much-advertised (see label photo below) ‘beechwood ageing process’ has not one single iota of influence on the flavour of the final beer, the wood having been boiled “nine or ten times” beforehand (presumably) to sterilise it prior to introduction into the fermenters. “It gives surface area to the yeast,” said Mark. “It’s a process aid really, not an ingredient.” He also confirmed that they do a lot of secondary fermentation; Bud is fully krausened as wort from an ‘Alpha beer’ is added to the lauter tun. “It’s not just cold-stored and then centrifuged.” He also answered a predictable question by saying each batch of Budweiser is lagered for three weeks.
We then did a tasting of fresh Budweiser wort – which had been freighted in from St Louis that morning – as well as the high-gravity ‘chip beer’ (Bud is initially brewed to ‘around’ 6% abv before being liquored back), and then a final bottle of the finished article. The wort had all the classic sweet cereal flavours of every other pale malt wort I’ve sipped over the years; maybe a touch of peanutty richness in there as well. The ‘chip’ beer – so called because it is taken from day 19 of 20 on the beechwood chips in the lagering tank – had an initial solventy edge to it, but with a sweet, slightly bananalike finish, with not much alcohol for 6%. Despite writing that last sentence, it was actually pretty good – the unusual elements weren’t overpowering, as Mark said, interestingly, “We consider Budweiser to be a fairly estery beer.” Then we tasted the final beer, which was pretty much tasteless.
And that’s the rub. Sure, I don’t like Budweiser – but plenty of people do. And for those people, the Quality team at AB-InBev go to fairly enormous lengths.
They do this by measures such as tasting panels for every beer, every tank and every water source that comes into the brewery – the municipal supply (which is carbon-filtered before starting the brew), mash water, lauter water, CIP water, sterile water and even the water they use to rinse the outside of the bottles with prior to packaging. It is all tasted by their trained sensory teams. They also compare the filtered beer and the final packaged beer from the same tank, to ensure evenness. It’s all done electronically, via touch-screen input, to give instant feedback to whichever of the 52 global AB-InBev breweries have submitted samples; across the entire estate of 63 brands that come from their plant at Baldwinsville, New York. They even taste competitors’ beers in the same way to ensure theirs are on a level (or better).
Mark backed this up by saying no global brewery in their operation can release a new beer until it passes three days of taste panels, as aside from the differences in kit and people (which they presumably iron out through standardisation and training), the major difference is the water source and condition. Some use reverse osmosis whereas others have their own wells, for instance. He also mentioned – when pressed, it was the only thing you got the impression he didn’t really want to divulge – that the ratio of barley to rice in a Budweiser brew is 75/25, and that the final ‘chip’ Bud comes out at 6.8% before having filtered water added during filtration to reach the final desired abv. In addition, they use a blend of nine different hops (they have their own hop farm) – two of which are bittering and the rest aroma and Noble hops; and if you’ve ever wanted to know the target IBU of Budweiser – it’s 10-11 IBU.
Anyway, it was fascinating – but after leaving, I realised there was one thing I should have asked.
You know how you sometimes think of a witty retort too late? You’re set up for the perfect riposte, but instead of delivering it with a coolness that would leave James Bond spluttering into his Martini, it pops into your head when in the shower the next morning? Well, I sat through this hugely interesting and entertaining talk, delivered by a clear expert in his field, and didn’t equate it with something blindingly obvious. And it was this. It was evident that the Quality team take a huge amount of pride in ensuring that each Bud is as good as it can be, and as good as the next off the line. But how does that fit with the infamous SuperBowl ad that stated Budweiser was ‘not brewed to be fussed over’?
If you’re actively telling your customers that they shouldn’t care how your product tastes, why should you go to any of this effort? Why should you care at all? Well, that’s what I wondered, at least, when in the shower the next morning…