Can Big Beer Really Make Great Beer?

Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have both launched independent brewing laboratories to experiment with making more esoteric "credibility beers" that take cues from the margins of the craft beer scene. Aaron Goldfarb visits these R&D centers and asks whether Big Beer can ever, truly, succeed in making great beer.

Upon landing at St. Louis’ Lambert International Airport, I immediately had my Uber take me to an old Coca-Cola syrup plant in the sleepy Carondelet neighborhood. Nowadays, the 14,000-square foot facility is home to Perennial Artisan Ales, a terrific brewery that first opened in 2011. But I wasn’t there for them.

“Is Cory here?” I asked a Perennial employee hosing down the floor. I didn’t need to offer a last name before being led through the warehouse and into one dark corner where a burly man with an orange beard sat in a small fork-lift, moving barrels around.

That man is Cory King, founder, owner, brewmaster, fork-lift driver, impromptu tour guide and everything else for Side Project Brewing, his one-man show that leases a 1,000-square-foot portion of Perennial’s space. (King was formerly brewmaster for Perennial and still serves as a consultant).

King primarily makes barrel-aged saisons and wild ales like Fuzzy, his famous blonde ale inoculated with spontaneously-captured yeast and bacteria as well as his house wild yeast blend. It’s then aged in chardonnay barrels alongside white peaches from King’s family farm. Around a thousand bottles of it are produced every few years, inciting an epic outpouring of beer geeks on release day.

Side Project’s miniscule size is surely one of its biggest assets. As King notes, “less overhead, less responsibilities” allows him to focus on just one thing: fully pursuing his vision for what great beer should be. Luckily, the way he defines great beer is similar to how many beer connoisseurs and tastemakers also define it, and Side Project has quickly become one of the most acclaimed breweries amongst the cognoscenti.

It’s somewhat self-evident that letting a massively talented man pursue his vision unencumbered would lead to greatness, but I was actually in St. Louis because I had been wondering whether the opposite also held true.

An hour after I left Side Project I was six miles north in St. Louis’ historic Soulard neighborhood. There, my black SUV drove through the security gate and onto the 189-building, 118.6-acre “campus” of Anheuser-Busch. The sheer size of it is impressive, though it’s hardly the soulless factory you might imagine. There are handsome sculptures (mainly of bald eagles, natch), a stable for those iconic Clydesdales and Romanesque buildings made of a gorgeous red brick, some dating back to the brewery’s opening in 1852.

Many beer drinkers, even fervent beer geeks, have long subscribed to a truism that the big breweries could brew the finest in IPAs, imperial stouts—even wild ales like Fuzzy—if they truly felt like making them. That is, if the higher-ups in suits, sitting on the board of directors, weren’t worried about their 1.6 billion shareholders, or the fact that a double IPA would surely cost more to make and ultimately not sell as well as the light, corn- and rice-packed lagers that bring in zillions in yearly revenue (AB InBev’s market cap currently sits around $200 billion).

Great beer is bold, it’s risky, and it’s usually challenging. It takes drinkers places they’ve never been before—it’s not just a facsimile of something that has already been proven “great.”

To a certain extent, it seems feasible. Macro-breweries—and I don’t use that word pejoratively—like Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, even Heineken own the finest equipment in existence. They have access to top grains and hops from around the world, and many of them even own the actual fields from which these ingredients are sourced. Most importantly, they have some of the highest-skilled and well-educated brewers in the business.

One of these brewers is Anheuser-Busch’s Rob Naylor. Baby-faced, clean-shaven and always wearing the requisite piece or two of AB-branded clothing, he looks more the “company man” than classic hirsute craft brewer. About as well educated as one can be in brewing—with degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering, among other qualifications—he’s been with Anheuser-Busch since 2002 working in various brewing capacities in both St. Louis and a satellite brewery in California. He now serves as brewmaster of AB’s Research Pilot Brewery (RPB).

The space, which first opened in 1981, actually doesn’t look much different than a craft microbrewery like Perennial—just an ordinary 15-barrel brewhouse with a few small tanks and fermenters. (If anything, the Anheuser-Busch gift shop seems bigger than the RPB.) Here Naylor and seven full-time employees innovate for the brand, conceiving the beers that may one day be the next, say, Lime-a-Rita or, in theory, some avant-garde wild ale. Last year, the team brewed nearly 400 different beers.

“The resources I have here? We’ve brewed literally everything you can think of,” Naylor tells me, chuckling. “Sometimes it’s even difficult to come up with something new we haven’t tried here—you name it, we’ve brewed it.”

That night over dinner, Naylor shared some of his team’s recent creations. The bottles have quotidian labels, computer printouts that merely list the batch number, ABV, bottling date and basic name of each beer: American Pale Ale, Single Hop – Mosaic, Cranberry Sour, Mesquite Rauchbier, Smoked Chipotle English Ale.

Add some goofy names and put them in slickly designed 16-ounce cans, and these beers wouldn’t seem much different from the offerings you’d find from an of-the-moment craft brewery. The beers are good—no world-beaters, but I’m particularly fond of the Single Hop – Mosaic; it’s flawlessly executed, almost as good as a similar offering making Brooklyn beer geeks go crazy at the moment.

But it, and the rest of the beers we tasted, will likely never hit the market. In fact, I may be one of the few non-AB employees to ever try them. When I wonder why, Naylor reinforces the idea that the RPB is more about testing things out for corporate than trying to nail an obscure hit that might not appeal to average drinkers.

“We’re trying to brew what consumers want. We can’t just hit that 0.1 percent of the population,” says Naylor, presumably referencing beer drinkers like me.

The next day I had lunch at the campus’ public “biergarten” with Jill Vaughn, a friendly, elegant woman who is currently AB’s Brewmaster for Innovations. When I first talked to Vaughn several years ago she was working on a series of food-based beers, looking to design one inspired by the offbeat cuisine of St. Louis. Attempts at a cream cheese-infused gooey butter cake beer and a toasted ravioli ale (seriously) had been flops, but we sipped on one that had become a real success story.

Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat was designed to taste like (and indeed it does) the great pretzels made just across the street from the brewery. It’s a cool beer, something you could easily imagine Dogfish Head or The Bruery attempting. Nevertheless, though it sells well as a winter seasonal offering, it’s not something that excites beer geeks, currently logging a mediocre 79 percent score on BeerAdvocate. Which raises another point: Even if Big Beer could make great beer, would anyone admit it?

“When we buy wine, we don’t just buy it for taste—we buy it because we like to think that it tells us a story about ourselves,” wrote Jennifer Fiedler in a recent article on PUNCH. It is, as she writes, “consumer theory 101.” The same notion applies to beer. Just as “anti-establishment wine—bottles made by disruptors, the rock ‘n roll, red-pill-in-the-Matrix wines—tells us that we’re smarter than the rest of the consumers who get suckered by flashy scores and faux chateaux,” the disruptive, alternative narrative around craft beer is essential to its allure amongst beer geeks. Thus, these particular consumers are naturally inclined to pooh-pooh Big Beer and its attempts to play the craft game.

Yet while AB approaches experimental beers mainly as a way of figuring out the craft trends they can translate to more commercial offerings, another corporate behemoth is actually trying to reach Naylor’s aforementioned 0.1 percent of beer drinkers.

Tucked within literally the largest brewing facility in the entire world—Coors’ Golden, Colorado, headquarters—is AC Golden, a brand incubator tasked with finding the next products for the big brewery to release nationally. Launched in 2007, AC Golden found early success with some more by-the-book offerings, but co-founder and president Glenn Knippenberg also wanted to make a few, as he calls them, “credibility beers.”

“We had a real need to build credibility,” Knippenberg tells me. “So we started introducing beers we thought could win awards and get acclaim from craft beer drinkers.”

These offerings are part of what is called the Hidden Barrel Program, which isn’t even mentioned on AC Golden’s website. Unlike the beers brewed at the RPB, most AC Golden beers actually make it to the local marketplace.

I first became aware of these beers two summers ago while beer shopping near Coors Field. A store employee—noticing my interest in his state’s more obscure offerings—asked if I wanted to try “the best sour in Colorado,” presenting a $30 bottle of Hidden Barrel Kriek.

Its base beer is made with 100-percent Colorado ingredients, which are put into wine barrels that already have a well-established microflora within the wood. “We have some barrels we’ve used for seven to eight years. It’s kinda like a sherry solera program,” explains AC Golden head brewer Jeff Nickel, sounding a whole lot like Cory King discussing his beers.

That aforementioned microflora includes two strains of Lactobacillus, not to mention Pediococcus and Brettanomyces. The beer is aged for about a year in these barrels before going to a fermentation vessel where locally grown fruit—sour Montmorency cherries in the case of the Kriek—is added. After one to three more months, the beer is put into bottles and conditioned with Brett to add even more funkiness.

“Because of our ownership, some people are biased when they judge our products. We have to overcome that,” Knippenberg says. “Some close-minded people might prefer not to ever drink MillerCoors beers. But they aren’t drinking the ownership, they’re drinking the bottle. So many people tell me, ‘I really didn’t want to like this beer—but it’s magnificent.’”

He’s not just being blustery. AC Golden’s barrel-aged offerings are certainly closer to being “great”—most score in the high 80s on BeerAdvocate, while their Framboise Noir sports a 91. Still, though undoubtedly delicious, they are not quite in the class of, say, a New Belgium La Folie or Crooked Stave Nightmare on Brett. Those are two truly sublime Colorado-brewed sours, both of which push the envelope to places Big Beer—even very good Big Beer—seems afraid to fully go.

La Folie, for instance, is a brown ale that is foudre-aged for a whopping three years, giving it a prickly, almost pungent acidity. It’s also inconsistent in its flavor profile year-to-year, with new batches often tasting quite different from previous vintages. Some years I’ve loved La Folie, while other years I have found it bordering on unpleasant. But those are often the boundaries a brewer has to broach if he’s going to swing for the fences and strive for ultimate greatness.

Great beer is bold, it’s risky, and it’s usually challenging. It takes drinkers places they’ve never been before—it’s not just a facsimile of something that has already been proven “great.”

I also believe, just like with film’s auteur theory, that great beer needs to come from just one or two people making the creative decisions, not a committee. Maybe that’s why the brewers with ambitions to truly make world-class beer are usually doing it all by themselves. Guys like Shaun Hill at Hill Farmstead, Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River, Troy Casey (who, incidentally, used to work at AC Golden) at Casey Brewing and Blending and, of course, Cory King.

Fuzzy is released when, and only when, it’s perfect to King, economics be damned. He brewed 400 barrels of beer in 2015, but only released around 200 of them. (Comparatively, the RPB brewed 3,800 barrels last year, while AC Golden brewed 11,000.)

Ultimately, though, success almost always leads to expansion. Even King is currently acquiring space to build his own brewery and is soon planning to hire his first employee. He remains cautious, though. “Hopefully we can still maintain what Side Project is and has become,” he says. “Just on a slightly larger scale.”

If only it was so easy.