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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, 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.

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