Budweiser Admits Flavor “Drifted” Over the Years

As I read the fascinating article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required to view the article) about how the flavor of Budweiser has drifted or “creeped” (as head brewmaster Doug Muhleman called it) over the years to become more bland, I was reminded of a conversation I had standing in line for food in the brewers’ lounge area at the Great American Beer Festival seven years ago. The GABF, when it was in the old building next to the new Convention Center where it’s now held, had a lounge where brewers, media and staff could go to relax and get away from the crowds. Standing in line for the free buffet lunch, in front of me, according to his badge was a brewer from Anheuser-Busch — I can no longer recall his name — and we began chatting amiably. Shortly before I’d left for Denver I’d received a gift at my office of a special 750 ml bottle of Budweiser that had been created to celebrate the millennium. My A-B chain rep. at that time explained to me that they were filled with everyday Budweiser, not a special brew to mark the occasion. So I mentioned this fact to my line buddy and asked why they didn’t do something special for the millennium bottle and I suggested they should have done a batch based on the original 1876 recipe. I’ll never forget the look on his face and what he said to me next. This brewer from Anhesuer-Busch looked me straight in the eye and said. “The Budweiser we make today is the same as it was then. We use the same recipe.” It was all I could do to not laugh in his face, because I really wasn’t trying to pick a fight. But it took a fair amount of restraint on my part not to call him on his statement.

And the reason for that is simple. No one in the beer industry believes that Budweiser today is the same as it was in 1876. Nobody. No one even thinks it’s the same now as it was at the end of World War Two. Nobody. And few people, if any, think it’s the same now as it was in the 1970s. But that’s been the party line at A-B for as long as I can remember. I recall Fred Eckhardt, a well-respected beer writer from Portland, talking about this fact in his various writings for many, many years. And I can’t recall a single conversation about this subject that came to a different conclusion over several decades. So for Anheuser-Busch to finally come clean and admit that the beer has changed feels like a vindication of the criticsms that have been leveled at them over the years.

The Wall Street Journal article states that “Anheuser[-Busch] concedes Budweiser has changed over the years. It quietly tinkered with its formula to make the beer less bitter and pungent, say several former brewmasters, a byproduct of the company’s desire to create a beer for the Everyman.” Apparently Triple Sticks, the affectionate nickname for August Busch III, in the 1980s ordered that sample bottles of A-B’s beers be cryogenically frozen, using the same method human tissue is frozen.

From the Wall Street Journal article:

Mr. Muhleman, who is officially Anheuser’s group vice president for brewing and technology, says the company didn’t set out to make the beers less bitter. He calls the change “creep,” the result of endlessly modifying the beer to allow for changes in ingredients, weather and consumer taste. “Through continuous feedback, listening to consumers, this is a change over 20, 30, 40 years,” says Mr. Muhleman, gesturing toward the row of Budweiser cans. “Over time, there is a drift.”

The five Budweiser cans in front of Mr. Busch, dating from 1982, 1988, 1993, 1998 and 2003, were pulled off the production line shortly after they were brewed. They were cooled to minus-321 degrees Fahrenheit over 16 hours and stored at that temperature in a secret laboratory in the company’s headquarters.

The sample cans demonstrate how “creep” works. The difference in taste between two beers brewed five years apart is indistinguishable. Yet, the difference between the 1982 beer and the 2003 beer is distinct. “The bones are the same. It is the same structure,” says Mr. Muhleman. Overall, however, “the beers have gotten a little less bitter.”

That may be part of it, but it sounds a bit disengenuous to me. They “listened to consumers?” How convenient that all these consumers wanted them to use less ingredients and make their beer more profitable. Because that’s the part of this “drift” that goes unmentioned. The WSJ article states that “[f]rom 1950 to 2004, the amount of malt used to brew a barrel of beer in the U.S. declined by nearly 27%, and the amount of hops in a barrel of beer declined by more than half, according to Brewers Almanac.” Well, guess what? They didn’t lower the price to reflect the use of less materials, did they? I certainly doubt it. According to the Siebel Institute: “Over the past twenty years the IBU’s of most American-style lagers has dramatically declined, from roughly 15-20 IBU’s to fewer than 10 today.”

Again, the article attributes this to outside influence, as the author writes. “Nonetheless, beer’s taste became steadily lighter.” (my emphasis.) This is driven home a second time by Graham Stewart, director of the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland when he states. “The North American palate has become lighter and lighter.” (my emphasis again.) They make it sound like it just happened as if it were accidental and beyond their control. But all of their advertising emphasized the “drinkability” of their beer as one of its greatest virtues. Through the slow manipulation of their formula to use less and less ingredients and careful advertising that de-emphasized that fact over time it was A-B (and the other big breweries) that changed their customers taste, not the other way around.

And this was done for one very sound reason, from their point of view — profit. Using less ingredients lowers your per item cost and increases profitability. Making the beer lighter has one other economic advantage and is explained rather straighforwardly by the article.

Again, from the WSJ article:

One key to Budweiser’s popularity is that it produces no “palate fatigue” after several drinks. The bitterness in stronger beers tends to build up, causing a drinker to tire of the taste. Bud’s appeal is what people in the industry call “drinkability.” (In the U.K., it is called “sessionability,” for how many beers one person will drink in a session.) Budweiser tests drinkability in “pub tests” in which the brewer rents a pub or a bar and invites people to drink free. Afterward, Anheuser drives the drinkers home.

For Mr. Busch, the definition of “drinkability” is simple: “I want the next beer!” he says. “You stop drinking because you know it’s time to stop but you don’t want to: That’s drinkability.” … “We’ve been tasting these beers for 50 years,” says Mr. Busch. “If we can’t sit down and drink three or four of them, then it’s not right.”

You’ve also heard this called “poundability,” and I think this admission runs quite contrary to the “responsible drinking” campaigns they’ve been using to keep the neo-prohibitionists off their back. A-B has their Responsibility Matters at beerresponsible.com, Miller has its Responsbile Drinking print campaign and Drink Aware in the UK. And you can download their Alcohol Manifesto at the Promoting Alcohol Responsibility section of the SABMiller website, and Coors‘ website has its own alcohol responsibility section. The point is that despite their hollow attempts at telling people to drink responsibly, a direct result of making their beer lighter is that people will drink more of it thus increasing sales. This is not so much a by-product as a carefully designed and predictable outcome of increasing “drinkability.” I love Busch’s own definition, which implies that if people stop drinking when they know they should stop then the Budweiser brewers haven’t done their job. How responsible is that?

According to the article, this strategy may finally be starting to backfire as craft beer has been showing consistent positive growth over the last few years. “As a result, rivals and some industry analysts blame Anheuser’s recent lackluster financial performance on the very foundation of Budweiser dominance: its light, bubbly formula, which has been mocked for years by beer snobs and beer drinkers outside the U.S.” So the economic indicators seem to be that people might actually be starting to demand that their beer have actual flavor. “I think you’re seeing an increased consumer acceptance that bitter is a positive characteristic in beer,” says Keith Lemke, vice president of the Siebel Institute. Another side benefit of craft beer, according to the big breweries’ logic (and one which should be embraced by the neo-prohibitionists), is that they claim craft beers’ strong flavors will create palate fatigue which lead to increased responsibility. This is because these full flavors will then cause people to drink less beer. That means that craft beer by its very nature is the better choice because it all but guarantees more responsible drinking. I realize it doesn’t actually really work that way, but it is a logical conclusion from A-B’s assertions. And I like the idea that from their own analysis craft beer is the best choice for drinking responsibly.

The article ends with a delightful coda from Abita Brewing’s president, David Blossom:

Many smaller brewers in the industry scoff at the idea there’s any difference between the two beers. “I sit back and chuckle at them going after each other,” says David Blossman, president of microbrewery Abita Brewing Co. in Abita Springs, La., which makes brands such as Purple Haze and Turbodog. “It’s like comparing Bunny Bread to Wonder Bread.”

And that’s an excellent observation, I think. We’re witnessing two giants duke it out over who has the better marketing claims. American-style lagers and American-style light lagers are all but indistinguishable from one another. So who wins the sales contest comes down to one thing: marketing. And how successful their marketing efforts have thus far been in misinforming their consumers about what beer is may be the saddest legacy of all.


    • John says

      I had a Budweiser in 2015. Compare to seventies it is water. Crap. Maybe even aspartame crap. Never again any Bush products.

      • jt says

        I haven’t had a Budweiser since my college days in the 1970s Drank one last night. Or started to. It tasted awful. Nothing like what I remember. Tasted pretty much like any other cheap American beer. Budweiser used to be distinctive with a good bite to it. No more.

  1. john coury says

    I am 59 yrs old and I have had many people my age and older state that it does not taste nearly as good as it used to. The flavor is almost gone over the years. I have noticed this because for years at a time I did not drink it. My Dad when he drank beer(not very often) always drand Budweiser. Now it is very bland and almost sour. Great article and researck.

    • jt says

      I’m 62 and hadn’t had a bud in probably 35 years but can still clearly remember the taste. Had one last night. Terrible. Nothing like they used to be.

  2. mike j says

    I remember a drastic change in the taste of all beers here in America , seems to be in the 70’s , seems a Government mandate that all carcinogens be removed from our beers. For me the taste change was dramatic .

  3. FrankO says

    I picked up some original Budweiser last night. Immediately I noticed the taste has changed. Gone was that bitter note that I remember as a kid, stealing a sip from my fathers beer. And even through the years as an adult the beer I had last night was unlike any of the past. What a shame. Bring back the bitter hops. It’s what made this beer an American staple.

  4. Jim says

    Reading this article sounds as if some craft brewer has sour grapes over the Budweiser ad at the Super Bowl I happen to like my Budweiser the way it is if they do use less ingredient than they did in 1950 I certainly wouldn’t expect to pay less in 2015 after all there is something called inflation there’s more than the cost of ingredients that goes in the price of beer it’s called overhead. I personally can only drink one craft beer and that’s it, I do enjoy two or three Budweiser’s, call it what you want but don’t take my Bud from me

    • says

      Interesting thought, but wrong. First of all, I’m not a professional brewer, but a journalist who covers the industry. And second, this was written in 2006, nine years before the controversial ABI ad you suggest I have “sour grapes” over. (And seriously, Jim, sour “grapes” was the best you could do about a beer story?) But the story isn’t about the fact that the flavor of Budweiser has changed over the years, which most industry insiders knew, but that for years they insisted that the recipe today was the same as it was in 1876. That may have protected the narrative story of the brand, but it was wholly untrue.

      • Jim says

        The article is still written by someone who apparently enjoys their craft beer So they pick on a statement and claim that the product doesn’t taste as good as they think it should the problem is, it is a very popular product that is accepted and sold all over the world Just because you don’t like a product doesn’t mean you have to pick a statement and then try to ruin the product image Taste is a personal thing some people will like it some people will not I personally like it. I hate to see someone put down a company that has been so generous and so giving as Anheuser Busch. yes they are a large company but they donate to so many charities and provides so many jobs for so many Americans my hat goes off to this company I’m sure you can find statements made by many companies that have been in business for 100 years that are not true today as they were years ago the fact still remains the taste of the product depends on the acceptance of the consumer and apparently the consumer likes the product

        • Black Tomato says

          Jim, stick to the original point bro. Budweiser maybe all of those things you said they are but this article is about the beer and what they portray their beer to be. This article is not about their charity work nor the jobs they produce. Plain and simple, its about how their beer used to be versus what it is like in 2015. This article is very well written and gives a good history behind the misguided portrayals Budweiser has duped its consumers into believing. If you as a consumer do not care that the taste has changed, that is your right as a consumer. We that do care would like to know where our money goes and what we are getting back in exchange for our hard earned dollars. You are by all means entitled to your opinion as a free American but Jay Brooks is not slandering or ruin a products image. He is simply giving the consumer the facts to make educated decisions about what they spend their money on. Take it for what it is.

          Good day sir.

      • MarkyMark says

        You are 100% correct. I have been drinking beer for 30 years. I talked to a self proclaimed beer expert at work last week and i mentioned how horrible Bud and Bud Light have become and he said that its the same recipe that is has always been and i disagreed, but neither of us had any solid proof to back up our claims. I used to drink Bud in a can back in 1984 and it was great! When i moved from CA to the midwest i started drinking Miller since it tasted better here. I went back to Bud about a month ago since they started selling cases of it for $14 at a local store. The cans no longer had the “This is the famous Budweiser….. We know of no beer that has a drinkability……..etc…Is made of the finest ingredients….etc… ..” on it any longer and i n my experience whenever a liquor or beer company changes their label, the recipe also changes. If you drink twenty 12 ounce cans of Bud or Bud light in a 16-20 hour period, you will feel a little bit sick. Do it again the next day, you will feel even more sick and wont recover for 24-36 hours. Do the same w/ Miller (Light, High Life, or High LIfe LIght) and you will feel fine (except for the usual dehydration from any beer. If you dont believe me. Try Miller High LIfe. It doesn’t taste great, but there are no chemicals added to it that will make you sick. I hope this post helps someone out. I only figured this out after i went to Belgium and Amsterdam for 3 weeks and drank some of the best beer in the world, once i came back i only drank Bud a couple of times and after i felt sick and then change brands and drank the exact same amount of beer and felt so much better i knew something was terribly wrong w/ Bud/Bud Light.

  5. Gary Gillman says

    I don’t knock, and I don’t think Jay is, the taste of the beer today for anyone who likes it. If they like it, that’s fine. Everyone likes something different.

    But it’s a fair point I think that Bud, for some people who can remember way back, just isn’t as satisfying as it was. To me it’s less malty, estery and hoppy – less of everything that makes beer, beer.

    I always felt rather than, or in addition to, playing with countless variations on a craft beer theme (which InBev-AB has been doing for years, and now it is buying craft breweries), just put out Budweiser as it was in 1876, say, 1933 or 1960 – or all three! It could be done as a limited edition. I’d be first to buy them.

    By the way I don’t agree with the company’s view that bitterness builds up with each unit consumed. I think it’s the opposite. After a first IPA that seems very bitter, the next one always seems much less so, your palate gets accustomed even in that short time. Maybe it’s the alcohol on the tongue. For me, I get the fatigue with a first beer that is very light on hops and malt.


  6. Jason peed says

    I’ve been drinking Bud since the late 80s and nothing changed at all till around 2010 or so. Now the taste is bland and I just don’t enjoy it anymore. Maybe it’s me , but it seemed to be all the sudden. If you changed it, please go back to that recipe. If it’s me, we had a great run!

  7. Chad says

    Good article, good replies too. I am so curious what beer brands tasted like when they were first branded. I can remember the cheap brands all tasted alike in the 80’s, even though I know they were different when they were brewed by their original company. aka Old Style, Schaffer, Schlitz, Hamms, Old Milwakee, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and etc. I have always wanted to taste these beers when they were like their original formulas. Pabst Blue Ribbon has bridged this gap, it taste much different than when I remember drinking a cheap version a decade ago. I bought a 6 pack of long necks, it has a unique taste. Like it or hate it, it is different. I loved Michelob back in the 80’s, but have drank Bud a lot now. It is better than Coors, but Miller High Life Light 32 oz cans are special in DFW area. I can drink a lot of Buds, but prefer fresh cold draft Buds. I would pay a lot to drink a 1876 Budweiser or early 20th Century remake. I enjoyed this post and comments a lot.
    Thanks everyone

    • Chad says

      The Pabst Blue Ribbon were a American Tradition Collection. They had taste and were very new, aka fresh born. The labels had lots of different old adds on each bottle and six pack. Budweiser should do it too, and let the brew masters use the old recipes. I would buy it immediately.

  8. Leo Guy says

    Noticed the biggest change in taste was right after AB sold the company !! From good to blah !! Now I’m looking for a new beer after almost 40 years of drinking it ? And it suxx , theirs way to many breweries ,small and large , to decide on which one is best ?? Bud and Bud lite go back to the way u were !! Like the good ole days back to its American roots !?!

  9. mark czup says

    good article! I gave up bud at least 10 years ago and never had one since. well…its time for a sierra Nevada pale ale!!!! wake up Budweiser! quit being greedy with public taste! yes even beer drinkers know quality! wake up!!!!!

  10. paul ryan says

    I am surprised, BUDWEISER now have a twist of cap, the lager has a total different taste to the Budweiser with the bottle opener required top, try it yourself, I 100% will not be drinking the new flavoured bottle. I hope many follow. Big companys think they can deliver to you what they want to make there product cheaper to mass produce. Sad on
    there part.

  11. Craig Ballew says

    Well, I’m ten years late but I just found this article while searching for articles on the Budweiser beer that used to be sold in the returnable long neck bottles in the 1970s and early 1980s. Me along with lots of friends who used to be Budweiser fans knew the beer had changed in the 1980s. Most just switched brands, some switched to hard liquor and some like me stopped being regular drinkers.

    One thing that no one has mentioned is how much of a taste difference there was between the returnable Budweiser long neck beers and the cans or regular bottles. I grew up in East Texas during the 1970s and all of the serious beer drinkers always went to the liquor stores and paid the deposit and purchased the same Budweiser beer sold in bars in the original non-twist-off long neck bottles. Almost anybody could tell the difference between different Budweisers packaged in the returnable long necks, canned beer and the disposable regular bottled beer in a blind taste tests.

    In East Texas all of the Budweiser in cans and regular bottles were almost always from the Houston Brewery. The returnable long necks were always brewed at the St. Louis brewery instead of the Houston brewery or one of the other regional breweries. The first beer always seemed to shock the taste buds, after that first beer the long necks were always smooth with a bold distinctive taste that if you paced yourself you could them drink all day and all night long and the last one was just as good as the second one.

    Some people claimed that those beers in the returnable long neck bottles were not pasteurized while others claimed it was brewed like draft beer instead of like the other bottle Budweiser and still others claimed it was the original Budweiser recipe. Whatever the reason, it was not the same beer.

    I stopped being a regular beer drinker in the 1980s when Budweiser switched to the twist off long necks because the beer tasted different – bland with a different strong yeasty bad after-taste. Except for some imported beers, all of the American beers were bland and watery and didn’t taste good enough for me to want to drink 4, 5 or more beers.

    Thanks for publishing this article and keeping it available.

    It’d be nice if somebody could recommend a regional beer or a craft beer or even a recipe that I could brew myself that tastes like the old Budweiser returnable long necks.

  12. Erik says

    I remember it literally being the best tasting beer I’ve ever had – it had ‘bite’ you could drink one after the other & the taste got better! Then sometime after 2004 the recipe changed – definitely for sure after 2011 because I started drinking it again & it was more bland & weirdly sweet in after taste with way less carbonation.
    Oh and may God have mercy on you if you drank more than 6 because your hangovers would be unforgiven! Then you’ll get irritable bowel syndrome/heart burn.
    The only beer that tastes similar to original bud is th amazing Michelob original Lager – which has that bite/no hangover I miss so much in Bud.

  13. Michael says

    Of course Budweiser changed the recipe who used to have wheat listed on the ingredients.now they make it with rice.friend of mine pointed that out when they used to list the ingredients on the bottle. of course you can’t see the ingredients anymore cuz they took it off. The beer is just too sweet. My stool don’t look as good because of the rice,mud. I drink any other bits golden brown.

  14. mike x budman says

    I can hardly drink bud any more i loved the bitter taste of the late 70s 80s bud and mich light.i would rather drink a coors light and so would a lot of people


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