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Budweiser: The search for relevancy

Budweiser has brought Project 12 back for a second go around. The last time resulted in the release of Budweiser Black Crown, but that wasn’t exactly the point of the project. This is a story that I wrote last year for All About Beer magazine (thus the reference to October is October of 2012), but the challenges Bud faces remain the same. Sales were down 4.1% in the first quarter of the year.

On the last Saturday night in October a customer stepped up to bar at Off Broadway, a music venue in a part of St. Louis many still call the brewery district. He surveyed six tap handles, three pouring beer from from New Belgium Brewing, two from locally owned Urban Chestnut Brewing, and one from 4 Hands Brewing, also local.

“You have Budweiser?” he asked the bartender, who shook his head from side to side.

“Bud Light?” he asked. The bartender turned and gestured to the bottle selection, represented by those on a shelf behind him. There were no beers made at the Anheuser-Busch brewery less than a 15-minute walk away.

The customer leaned back, closing and opening his eyes with a theatrical look of surprise. “This is St. Louis, isn’t it?” he asked of no one in particular.

Off Broadway1 is not typical. More often, in taverns, pubs and restaurants that share a ZIP Code, 63118, with Anheuser-Busch signs advertising Budweiser hang prominently and Bud and Bud Light are top-selling beers. However, when establishments feel comfortable not even offering Budweiser it reminds those in charge of the brand the challenges they face. In 1988, when one in four beers Americans consumed was a Budweiser almost every new drinker tasted it at least once. Today, when one beer in 12 is a Bud, that’s hardly guaranteed.

“Until two years ago there were a lot of 21 to 27-year-olds who weren’t drinking Bud,” said Nate Scudieri, Budweiser senior brand manager. “It wasn’t as relevant a brand to them.”

Project 12 – which resulted in a variety pack that will be available into the new year as well as the recipe for the next Budweiser, Black Crown – is one of several A-B initiatives intended to keep Budweiser a part of the beer conversation. “What it (Project 12) does, it gets consumers to look at Budweiser differently,” Scudieri said. “It exists to give people a reason to try Budweiser (itself) again, when they see the sort of things Budweiser is capable of.

“(Drinkers 21 to 27 years old) are interested in finding what’s new in beer. Styles, ABV, color. They want to discover the beers and share them with their friends.”

Mike Kallenberger, who operates Tropos Brand Consulting and previously worked for 30 years at Miller Brewing and MillerCoors, put the challenge in perspective. Smaller brewers have claimed much of that territory, of what those in marketing call share of mind. “It’s much, much bigger (for craft beer) than the percentage of sales,” he said. “Maybe 40 or 50 percent of the quote, unquote, conversation.”

When the plans to release Black Crown early in 2013 were announced, a Huffington Post headline called it a “Stodgy Brand’s Crowdsourcing Play For Hipster Cred.” Although A-B collected feedback from 25,000 consumers before picking three beers for the variety pack, the recipes themselves were the product of the dozen brewmasters in charge of the company’s American breweries.

They collaborated on the beers, creating six that took the names of the ZIP Codes where they were brewed. Consumers tasted them and provided feedback throughout the summer, 10,000 of them at the Made in America Festival – a music extravaganza in Philadelphia headlined by Jay-Z over Labor Day weekend, and another effort to entice drinkers to reappraise how they think about Budweiser.

All 12 brewmasters served samples in Philadelphia. “I poured more beer that one day than I have all the rest of my life,” said Jim Bicklein, who is in charge of the St. Louis brewery. He and Katie Rippel from the Fort Collins, Colo., plant wrote the recipe for 63118. Brewers at smaller breweries often pour beer at festivals, but not those who supervise Anheuser-Busch facilities. “One thing that struck me was all the questions,” Bicklein said. “They were genuinely interested in how we make these beers.”

The common component in the six was Budweiser yeast. One beer that didn’t make it into the three-beer sampler included coriander, orange peel and lemon peel. The package includes four each of three beers: a lager aged on bourbon staves and vanilla beans in Virginia (ZIP 23185), an amber lager brewed in Los Angeles (91406), and the beer brewed in St. Louis (63118).

Budweiser Black Crown will be made using the recipe for 91406. That beer is darker and stronger (6% alcohol by volume compare to 5%) than Budweiser and contains 15 International Bitterness Units (versus 10 in Bud).

When A-B representatives offered sample sizes and collected feedback at participating restaurants and bars in the St. Louis area they talked about bitterness units only when pouring 63118, literally warning drinkers – many of whom had left a pale lager behind at the bar or their table to sample the Project 12 beers – that it came with 18 IBU, compared to 10 in Budweiser.

(In fact, A-B seldom talks about IBU in Bud or its other beers. In 1982, Joe Owades, a legend in brewing circles who is credited with developing the first light beer, estimated the bitterness of Budweiser was equivalent to 20 IBU in 1946, and still 17 in the 1970s.)

For the sake of comparison, Blue Moon Belgian White contains 18 IBU and New Belgium Fat Tire 19, but neither has the “hop presence” of 63118. The bulk of the hops, Mittelfrüh from both the Hallertau and Tettnang regions of Germany, are not added until almost the end of boiling. That preserves more essential oils and results in prominent but delicate floral, spicy and even citrus (but quite different, and more delicate, than the citrus is an America hop like Cascade) aromas.

Bicklein discussed the recipe as he walked along a deck in one of three brewhouses within the St. Louis plant. He talked about brewing something similar to Budweiser in the late nineteenth century, but not simply going to the archives for an old recipe. He included rice because Budweiser sales soared after Adolphus Busch authorized the addition of rice in the 1870s. He used hops from the Tettnang and Hallertau region because those were the hops German immigrants naturally preferred. He added a little caramel malt for color, and like Budweiser itself, 63118 is aged on beechwood chips.

Bicklein motioned toward a large mosaic at one end of the brewhouse, called Germania. Another mosaic, called Americana, used to occupy the wall at the other end, but was moved to a brewery entrance foyer when a control room was added at that end of the brewhouse. He talked about German/American heritage, then paused, considered what he said, and allowed it sounded a bit “goofy.” He smiled sheepishly. “But it’s my story.”

He oversees production of 15 million barrels of beer a year in St. Louis, and more Budweiser than at any of the 42 breweries2 (8 of them in China) where Bud is made. It’s no surprise he knows the beer well. He doesn’t need to have a glass of it beside 93118 to compare the two. His variation on the theme is stronger, 6% ABV, and a bit darker. “I like that caramel note. But it’s also very crisp, (it) has that clean finish, characteristic of Budweiser,” he said, taking a sip of 93118 and setting it down. “The hop character is unique. There’s more of that on the aroma. The esters (some fruity) are not as pronounced as Budweiser.”

Maybe not a beer designed to claim much “hipster cred,” but one that was worth talking about.

*****

1 Off Broadway since added cans of Bud Light Lime-A-Rita and Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita to the shelf behind the bar.

2 The number is now up to 45.

Is that a beer fault? Or intentional choice?

Rather than languishing as the 22nd comment on the previous post this question from Tom seems worth making a new post.

There seems to be a conflation between intentionality and fault running through a good portion of the comments here. My question: if AB continually produces a beer with a particular flavor profile, with components that are marked as a fault by certain drinkers but not by others, doesn’t that point to a certain level of intentionality on AB’s part that makes that fault not so much a fault but an intentional choice by the brewery? Sure, some people may or may not like it, but to call something a fault would imply the brewer didn’t intend it to be in the beer. And I’m guessing AB wants that flavor in their beer. Whether we as drinkers like it or not. A rough similar analogy would be with diacetyl/butter flavors in British beers–there seems to be a lot more tolerance for this as a flavor component of beer in England than in the United States. Thoughts?

Not to rehash the analytic versus hedonistic argument of last week but acetaldehyde hardly seems to be what provokes such vitriol toward Budweiser and its brethren at the beer ratings sites.

Just for the heck of it I took a quick look at the Budweiser ratings at Rate Beer. (As a quick aside, seems curious that Bud had been rated 2,994 times, while the “impossible to get” Westvleteren 12 a comparatively high 1,886 times.)

No mention of green apple, grassy aroma or flavor or acetic (vinegar) character, all attributes of acetaldehyde.

Anyway, Tom asks a good question.

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