Roderick Read, the manager and brewmaster of Anheuser-Busch's Research Pilot Brewery (RPB) points at a floor drain, "Most of the beer I make goes right down there." Read brews 15 barrels of beer in his two to four daily batches and typically packages only about four cases worth of bottles from each session.
We did the math: That's nine gallons of beer in bottles and a staggering 456 gallons that goes down the drain. Read will brew 10,000 barrels of beer this year. Aside from a few batches that will be given away at beer festivals for consumer feedback, most of it will go down that floor drain and he won't (and can't) sell a drop.
Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch has famously claimed that "the big guys spill more than we make." While there's more than a bit of hyperbole there considering that Samuel Adams sold 3.5 million barrels of beer last year, you'll hear similar sentiments from the hundreds of craft breweries that produce less than Anheuser-Busch’s RPB alone.
A visit to the Research Pilot Brewery on the grounds of Anheuser-Busch's famous St. Louis plant bears out the differences in scale, but also sheds light on the company's dedication to quality control as well as its desire to play in the wildly creative and fast growing craft beer sandbox as well. Before Read's tenure, Bud Light, now America's best selling beer, was first piloted at the RPB.
Read's has the pedigree you'd expect, a degree in brewing science from the prestigious UC Davis, and a varied resume that has taken him through production, packaging, and innovation positions at Anheuser-Busch. So why is he dumping all that beer? First, there’s the necessity of size.
"We brew at a 15-barrel scale because we need to be big enough to scale up recipes developed and perfected at the RPB for our larger breweries,” says Read.
Second, he couldn’t sell it if he wanted to. “We're not even bonded to sell beer from this system. The mission here is to test raw materials, innovate new products, and teach future brewmasters how to brew."
While Read's practices might seem wasteful, the lost beer still has value. The brewery runs an anaerobic digester to help reclaim energy from all waste water and waste beer. The digester utilizes micro-organisms working without the presence of oxygen to convert the RPB's beer into a usable biogas. Between the waste from the production brewery and the RPB, Anheuser-Bush is able to produce about 10 percent of the energy for the entire St. Louis brewery.
Read's creative process is fluid. Sometimes brand teams will request that he brew specific batches like new flavorings for the Bud Light Rita line. And America’s best-selling beer, Bud Light, was once a product of the RPB. Other times the ideas develop from Read and the young brewers under his charge. One such idea, to brew a beer that tasted like a pretzel, led to a recipe that ultimately hit the market as Shock Top Pretzel Wheat. An experiment to add mustard flavor to the base pretzel beer was less successful, "You learn quickly when something doesn't go right." Other experimental but never-released beers include an imperial oatmeal stout and a variation of Budweiser bursting with the tropical fruit-like Galaxy hops.
Read's team typically ranges in age from 20-26 (the youngest brewers on the team are not allowed to sample their own work until they reach legal age) and the equipment they use is less automated than you'd expect in one of the world's most advanced breweries. Gravity is favored over pumps wherever possible and hoses are attached by hand as wort and beer is moved from tank to tank like at more humble craft breweries.
"The RPB is sort of a teaching hospital,” says Jane Killebrew, Annheuser-Busch's director of brewing, quality, and innovation. “We could add more automation, but I don't want our young brewers to just flip switches. I want them thinking about the whole process and what's happening."
Read's third mission of the RPB is raw materials testing. It might not sound glamorous, but it's critical for the maintenance of Anheuser Busch's core brands. Hops and barley change in significant ways from year to year, but drinkers expect the same flavor every time they buy a beer. When new crops are brought into the brewhouse, it takes careful testing to determine whether they can be used in the brewery's core products. While the flavor of a Budweiser doesn't change, the way it's brewed each year does.
Read also brews standard Budweiser with established ingredients to ensure that his brewing processes are repeatable. "Brewing Budweiser each week validates everything we do. If I can't repeatedly brew a Budweiser on my system I can't credibly say that I can teach our brewmasters to brew a new recipe on their systems."
These validation batches are graded by the Anheuser-Busch's key tasters along with samples from their production breweries around the world. The grading scale runs from one to ten and Read is pointed about the importance of those scores. "We want to be above a seven, if I score a six I'm sweating."
Dave Maxwell, director of brewing, North America puts the pressure into perspective when he shows us the elegant wood paneled tasting room that the key tasters use to evaluate their beer. A small nondescript room with a telephone adjoins the tasting room. "If the key tasters pick up any problems in the beers they'll come over her to use this phone to call the brewery that produced the beer. It affords some privacy. The brewmasters call it 'The Cry Room' because when that phone rings they know it means trouble."