The Brewing of Bud

A tour of the Anheuser-Busch plant in Baldwinsville, N.Y., which first appeared in the Syracuse New Times, September 2-9, 1987

* * *

The beer they brew in Baldwinsville begins as a handful of optimism and seed grain somewhere out in the Midwest, as green hop cuttings under blue skies in the northwestern United States and southwestern Germany, as a rising cloud over the Great Lakes, as a turbulent swirl of yeast in a St. Louis laboratory.

It ends its journey commingling with its adherents, and when we talk about Budweiser, the largest-selling beer in the world, we’re talking about a considerable number of beer drinkers. One in every four beers consumed in America is Budweiser. One in every three is brewed by Anheuser-Busch.

Because nature is changeable in her moods and blessings, the first step in brewing is to find where she has shown the most favor and to outbid the competition for the products grown there. As the largest brewer in the world, Anheuser-Busch has deep pockets and a real advantage in this competition. In spite of $300 million-plus spent on marketing each year, the gigantic brewer still sees quality as the cornerstone of its efforts, and strives to send the best materials to each of its 11 breweries.

The challenge, once the materials arrive, is to brew the same beer as yesterday, the same beer ten other Anheuser-Busch breweries will brew. Although this consistency might seem unnatural, or even impossible, it’s absolutely critical to a major brewer. A Budweiser drinker cares that Budweiser tastes the same every time; he doesn’t care if the Red River Valley had less rain this year or if a blight has destroyed an entire variety of hops.

And so the brewmasters, the chefs of brewing, begin each day with their work cut out for them. When railcars filled with malt pull into the shadows of the brewery, the brewmaster uses a long probe to select a random sample and cuts individual grains open. This physical check of brewing grains, although backed now by extensive computer and chemical analysis, is a vital step as old as brewing itself. Appearance, feel, taste and smell are all important.

Once the grain has been cleaned of dust, Bic lighters, wallets, car keys and whatever else has fallen in along the way, it is coarsely ground in huge mills.

Three types of grain are used in brewing Anheuser-Busch beers. Malt is malted barley: barley that has been allowed to begin germination in order to generate the enzymes needed to convert the starch to fermentable sugar. Left alone, this sugar would be used for energy by the rootlet as it fell to the soil and began to grow. Man uses moisture to start this process artificially. Heat is used to halt the process; the rootlet falls off and the sugar is thus saved for brewing.

Rice and corn provide additional starches which are broken down to sugars by the remaining enzymes in the barley malt. Budweiser and Michelob, and their siblings, use malt and rice. Less expensive corn is used as an adjunct to the malt in Busch, L.A., Natural Light and King Cobra brews.

The ground rice, or corn, is heated with water in a cooker. The ground malt is heated with water in a mash tank. (The water to be used in brewing is treated, purified and tasted every day to ensure that it is perfect for brewing.) If you were making vegetable soup, the result of this cooking process would be broth. In brewing, it is called wort, a clear amber liquid that is freed of spent grains in a straining tank.

From straining, the wort flows to the brew kettle, steam brings the wort to a boil and hops are added. The huge burlap-wrapped bales of hops have been inspected just as closely as the grains and water. The pale green hop flowers are checked visually and by touch for moisture and freshness, then rubbed between the hands and raised to the face to check aroma.

The boiling of the wort and hops is the actual “brewing” process. Glimpsing into the brew kettle during the full boil is like watching a storm at sea, a microcosm of violently tossing waves, foam, spray and enormous energy. The flying bits of black amid the white are the hops, imparting their bitter taste to the beer, balancing the sweetness of the malt. Hops are added again near the end of the boil to give the beer its hoppy aroma.

After the boil, the hot wort flows down through cooling towers to the primary fermentation tanks. When the wort’s temperature has cooled enough to be hospitable, yeast is added. For the next several days, the yeast thrives on its diet of fermentable sugars, fermenting them to alcohol and carbon dioxide, and the wort becomes beer.

Because yeast is a living organism, it can change over time and improvise new flavor riffs of its own. Because consumers expect every Budweiser to taste the same, a fresh, pure yeast culture, grown from one cell, arrives once a week from St. Louis.

When the ferment nears completion, the beer is transferred to lager tanks (the German word “lager” means “to store”). Freshly fermenting beer is added and the beer undergoes a second fermentation. This step takes place under refrigeration and pressure, and is called kraeusening. It matures the beer and provides natural carbonation. And at the bottom of this tank lie the famous beechwood chips.

The beechwood chips provide more surface area for the yeast to work and help clear the beer by attracting and holding the yeast. The chips are actually long strips of beechwood, sent up from Tennessee, boiled for 50 hours prior to use to remove all the tannins from the wood, and cleaned after each use thereafter. This use of wood chips, both maple and beech, was common in American breweries after 1860, but only Anheuser-Busch continues the practice today.

After lagering, the beer goes to the chill-proofing tank. Chill-proofing is simply the use of a natural tannin to precipitate out any proteins left in the beer from the malt. These proteins, when chilled, appear in beer as a cloudy sediment. Although they’re harmless, the put off the majority of lager beer-drinkers and are best left behind in the chill-proofing tank and final filters.

From filtration, the beer is bottled, canned or kegged. As you’d expect, the bottling and canning lines move with remarkable speed. A typical bottling line, which resembles a stainless steel merry-go-round, fills and closes 1,200 to 1,600 bottles each minute. Bottled and canned beers are then pasteurized; essentially, they’re given a hot bath to kill any bacteria that might spoil the beer before its final consumption.

At every step in the process, a panel of brewmasters tastes the beer to be sure everything is proceeding according to plan. The tasting goes on in a simple room lined with shelves and stainless steel refrigerators. The packaged beer from all the other Anheuser-Busch brewing sites is tasted here as well.

The tasting is in earnest, since one incorrect call could render the product unacceptable and shut down the brewery. Because taste is sensitive and vital, brewers shy away from smoking, and cannot eat within two and a half hours of a tasting. They don’t use aftershaves or scented soaps. Surrounded by beer, they remain steadfastly sober. A breathalyzer sits in the corner, ready to bench anyone who isn’t businesslike.

Keeping an eye on all this is Resident Brewmaster Doug Jones. Jones, who carries two paging beepers (one short-range, one long-range), is a cook who can never be far from his kitchen.

Nor does he want to be. “If I think of something at 4 a.m., I don’t like to telephone and disrupt someone else’s work. I just roll out of bed, drive over and take care of it,” he says.

Jones lives less than five miles from his brewery now, but he started the journey at Kentucky’s Murray State University where he earned a degree in agriculture. In 1966, he started with Anheuser-Busch as a research agronomist, studying the raw materials of brewing. Anheuser-Busch then sent him to the Siebel Institute in Chicago to learn brewing. Five Anheuser-Busch breweries and 18 years later, he became resident brewmaster at the converted Schlitz brewery in Baldwinsville.

On his bookshelf, In Search of Excellence sits alongside The Practical Brewer. The notion of excellence is everywhere throughout Anheuser-Busch. In company-wide competition, the Baldwinsville brewery won the gold “Reach for Excellence” award in 1984 and 1985, and the silver in 1986.

Jones will tell you that he loves his work, but his comments aren’t necessary. When he puts on his hat and safety glasses, and hangs a set of earplugs around his neck in preparation for a tour, he glows. On his way through the brewery, he stops repeatedly to pick up any tiny scraps of paper or bits of string, which he drops in the nearest wastebasket. He greets every worker he sees by name, with a handshake and a good word.

When he’s not tasting or supervising brewing, Jones talks with his assistant brewmasters (two of whom are members of the Koch family that founded and formerly owned Fred Koch’s Brewery in Dunkirk, N.Y.), superintendents and supervisors, his boss in St. Louis, his bargaining unit, and Plant Manager Christopher Spire. Jones also pays attention to consumer trends, the news from sales and marketing, and finally a voice that few others hear. “An old brewer told me,” Jones recalls, “that the brewery will talk to you, if you just know how to listen.”

The brewery is immaculate, and not just because Doug Jones passes through twice a day. Anheuser-Busch takes extraordinary pains to look good to its visitors. Every piece of machinery is painted the same shade of blue or gray. New machinery gets fresh paint if the shade is wrong. The white of insulation and the silver of stainless steel are the only exceptions to the rule. This dress-for-success routine for pumps and pipes might be perceived by visitors only on the subliminal level, but it contributes to the overall impression of a clean, orderly brewery.

And whether you’re perspiring near a boiler or shivering next to a lagering tank, there’s no doubt that this is a clean and orderly brewery, both in perception and reality.

There is, however, one ghostly note in the chorus of perfection. When the brewery was converted from a Schlitz plant, a roomful of dark, mammoth tanks was left untouched and unused. The tanks cannot hold the pressure of Anheuser-Busch’s chilled and pressurized fermentation process, but it would cost more to remove them than to abandon them in place. And so they sit, neither blue nor gray, just empty.

In the active parts of the brewery, every day and every night of the year, the people of Anheuser-Busch brew Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob, Michelob Light, Michelob Classic Dark, L.A. and Busch. Two others, Natural Light and King Cobra Malt Liquor, with smaller markets, are brewed at other Anheuser-Busch breweries. At full steam, Baldwinsville can brew and package 7.2 million barrels of beer annually. In slightly more comprehensible terms, that’s 271,780 cases of beer each day.

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