For a change of pace on our recent trip to St. Louis my wife and I took a tour of the biggest, baddest, brewing behemoth to be found in the USA: Anheuser-Busch Brewery! Let me first off explain my thoughts of AB. I came to the beer scene late, (despite helping my mom brew when I was much younger,) I really didn't get interested in beer until I tried Pyramid Apricot Ale and Sam Adams Cherry Wheat. Realizing that all beers were not pale fizzy flavorless macro-swill I tried my hand at homebrewing some of my own and really learned a lot about different styles by hanging out at Goose Island Brewpub and tasting all their concoctions. As Goose Island grew, they tried new things like bourbon barrel aging and sour beers, and I continued to love these interesting new beers. Not too long ago, my GI was bought by AB to the consternation of many of us beer geeks. I have to say that so far the only change I have noticed is increased distribution and availability of their beers, and no big drop in quality. AB has brewed many attempts at craft beers on their own, but they always seem to pull back and put out a product that is too sweet, too light, too flavorless to really appeal to the craft beer drinker, instead aiming at trying to get the widest audience. I have viewed AB and the other macro companies as more interested in marketing and selling product than being concerned about actual beer quality. So going into this tour, I had some serious preconceptions, making this trip almost an ironic one.
On arrival, we entered through a large entry way decorated by a glorious wooden eagle symbol, seemingly made just for photo-ops. Beyond this was an enormous open gallery area filled with cases of AB paraphernalia from the ages. Cool old pocket knives, bottles, logos, and a full sized old beer truck. Since we arrived early we had time to check out all this neat stuff, really getting a feel for the age and scope of one of the early and most successful breweries in the USA. They had a collection of the old German style intricately decorated beer steins that were amazing to look at, and I'm still mad that they didn't have any replicas for sale in the gift shop.
We chose to do the Brewmaster's Tour for a more in-depth visit of the brewery than is given for free to the general public. Our tour started promptly at 10 AM and consisted of us and one nice couple from Canada, obviously big fans and decked out in Budweiser gear. Our Tour guide Jonathan was a very friendly guy and quite knowledgeable about brewing and the history of the place. He started working there before he was legal to drink and was excited to finally be old enough to give the tours. We started out in a cozy room with plush leather couches and a big TV. There was a quick overview of the brewing process and looking at hops and malts. I was passed a canister of Black Patent malt and snarkily asked what AB beer that was used in. The answer was none...it was just to show the potential differences in color of malts. Maybe they should start using some... We received an AB ball cap, protective eye wear and headphones. Once we were all decked out in our gear we started the tour proper.
First stop were the glycol jacketed primary fermenter conicals. These things boggled the mind. I've seen all types of conicals ranging from homebrew 7 gallon to New Belgium's large tanks, but the monolithic nature of these tanks was insane! I couldn't fit a whole fermenter in a picture! It was also somewhat chilly in there. We discovered why we had headsets since the background noise would overwhelm a normal tour guide...we simply turned up the volume and learned more about the capacity of those enormous tanks. Do I remember any of that info? Nope, my mind is like a sieve.
Next step was the secondary fermenters, smaller but still huge. Very cold in here and I'm glad we had coats on! They showed us the large stainless tea-ball apparatus filled with beachwood chips that help with clarification and fermentation of the beer. These strips of wood are boiled to hell first so they don't impart any flavor to the final product. One of the perks to the Brewmaster tour was getting to try a fresh sample of beer right off the fermenter. That day we had Bud Light: brewed at about 8.5% ABV and unfiltered at this stage, it tasted like a cloudy Imperial Cream Ale. Best Bud Light ever! This would eventually be filtered and watered down to its final light beer status, and no longer taste like anything.
A word about the brewery grounds. Massive. That is the only word that describes it. The complex takes up several city blocks and is made up of dozens of huge brick buildings, all of various vintages, shapes and sizes. Some of the buildings are original from the 1890's, others from 1910, and onward. The grounds themselves are very well-kept with gardens and trees abounding. Even the trash cans and man-hole covers have the AB eagle symbol on them. A large clock tower sits in the center of this complex, flanked by eagle-topped pillars.
Our next location was the brewery itself filled with gargantuan stainless mash tuns. This is the fanciest brewery I've ever seen. Two extensive hop bine chandeliers dangle over the brewing area, which is beautifully tiled and accented with gold leaf. There are large and impressive paintings from one of the old World's Fairs in the building as well. Scroll work metal railings look out from each floor into the central area and sky-lights let in what little light there was on this cloudy day. I could have spend an hour in here taking pictures, but we were on a schedule.
A bit farther to walk and we came to the packaging building. This was built just prior to prohibition and was initially meant to be used as a hotel if the brewery was threatened with failure. Because of that, there is ornate tile work and fanciful light fixtures. Each corner of the building boasts a large rock Bevo: the man-fox holding a mug and a chicken leg that became the mascot for AB's non-alcoholic malt beverage during prohibition. Bevo also frolics amongst the tiles in the lobby of the building. Upstairs is the bottling line. Even with earphones turned up, it was very difficult to hear our guide inside. They were bottling 40 oz Becks beers that day and I can't even imagine how many bottles there were zinging this way and that on the extensive and maze-like apparatus. Labeling, filling, capping, boxing. One lady was pulling off the low-fills and tossing them into a big dumpster. Green glass littered the ground. That is why they have about a thousand warnings about no open toed shoes in the literature and agreement for doing this tour!
From Bevo, we caught a cool old wood-lined Budweiser trolly to the Clydesdale stables. They keep a few horses here for show as well as a bunch of the old tack and bridles. The majority of the horses are bred and cared for at a large stable outside of town, and travel in air conditioned padded (and big) trailers to their other home and for special events like the Superbowl. Much like the rest of AB's grounds and style these horses are freakishly huge. They stand 6 foot tall at the shoulder, making me feel like a small child next to one. All of the horses there that day were not cooperating with good picture taking and all I could get was a few pics of unusually large horse behinds. They also had three of the red wood and sparkling brass beer wagons that are usually hauled by the draft horses. Very neat, but the glare off all that brass also made for crappy pictures.
At this point it started to lightly rain, which I had been expecting for a while now. We continued to walk between towering buildings that cut out most of the wind and rain. We passed a white metal trailer covered with bio hazard symbols that houses the limes for Bud Light Lime. I had no idea they actually used limes in that! Not sure why they are so hazardous though... Just past there we saw a tanker truck filled with clam juice for the Clamato. Our guide said that when they spill some of the clam juice it stinks up the whole complex. Of note at one point in our walking tour a group of people hustled past us frantically donning yellow hazmat bunny suits. Perhaps they were on their way to clean up a clam spill? Or dealing with dangerous limes?
We came next to the chilly bright tanks, where they lager the beer before bottling it. Our guide inserted a pig-tail into the grand tank and Budweiser began to spill onto the ground. We were given AB tasting glasses with the eagle logo etched into the bottom for better bubble formation, and got to fill them directly from the tank. Probably due to the cool factor of getting to drink directly from the tank, this was the best Budweiser I've ever had. Don't worry, I'm not going to suddenly drop craft beer!
To cap off the tour we walked into the large tasting room. Our guide led us through the room past all the coolers and taps and back to the room we started the tour in. "We don't drink with those people," our guide commented. Back in our comfy warm room with big leather couches we were shown to a mini fridge packed full of beers, and told that we had about an hour until the tour was officially over. The regular tour gets two samples at the tasting room, but we could open whatever we wanted. Pretty cool, but would have been cooler if the beers were better! We tried the nasty Wild Blue, and a bunch of the Shock Top flavors...all of them just not quite getting the amount of flavor right to be called craft beer. The Bud Light Lime was surprisingly good, I could see drinking it on a hot day with tacos. Dangerous limes though... The Lime-A-Rita sounded gross, but wasn't too bad. Not a beer though. The other guy on our tour really had no interest in trying the other beers, he just wanted his regular Budweiser. This is one of the core difference between craft beer drinkers and macro drinkers. Most people find a beer they are comfortable with and know it will taste the same wherever they are, sticking to it forever. Craft beer people always want to try something new, but can still have favorites that they return to.
This was a great tour and a really interesting way to spend the morning in St. Louis. Despite my thoughts of the beers in general and of the predatory practices of the big companies, I was pleasantly surprised with the trip. To come full circle, like Goose Island being bought out, AB themselves have recently been bought by In-Bev, the Belgian based macro-giant. Looking at the history of this place and the generations of brewers and workers that have been here, I regret that the company is no longer a true symbol of American industry. Who knew I would ever feel bad for AB?