For lack of a better term many craft beer fans, myself included, have fallen into a trap. Our palates have been so wrecked by hoppy IPAs and super roased imperial stouts, that we deride the traditional and maligned American lager. The pretension that comes with looking down on mass-marketed American lagers is a craft beer right of passage.
Homebrewing has made me appreciate how exceedingly difficult it is to brew an American lager. If it is fermented at few degrees to high of a temperature, without pitching enough yeast, and sufficiently oxidizing the wort, the esters produced by the yeast will make the beer taste like a sour-apple Jolly Rancher. That is if the beer fully attenuates at all, producing enough alcohol and sufficiently drying out the finish. The use of unmalted corn or rice can add additional steps to the mashing process. If the beer isn’t cooled rapidly after the boil, it will never come close to the brilliant clarity it is supposed to have. If anything goes wrong at any point in the process there aren’t copious amounts of hops and/or roasted malts to hide any imperfections.
Studying for the BJCP exam has allowed me to get back to appreciating different styles of beer for what they are. Is the American lager or light lager my favorite style by any means? No, I certainly drink a lot more hoppy IPAs and stouts of all types. This past week I was at a chain restaurant and I enjoyed two Budweisers on draught for the first time in ages. I mean, I was a Bud guy. From the age of 22 to probably 27 or 28 there was probably a 30-pack of Budweiser in my fridge at all times. At my first bachelor pad, my buddies and I would crush 30 bomb, after 30 bomb of Bud Heavy. Having it again recently was the first time I appreciated a Budweiser as an educated beer drinker, taking note of the clarity, the crisp finish, and the very subtle yeast flavor.
The venerable brand has been in the news recently about how it has been leaking sales and market share for years. Bud Light passed Budweiser as the top beer in America in 2001. Parent company InBev is deathly afraid that they are losing the entire millennial generation as potential Budweiser drinkers. At one end of the spectrum Joe Sixpack has been drifting to Bud Light for years. At the other end of the is the craft beer community that wants more flavor in their beer. AB InBev has changed how the beer is marketed to try and reverse the slide. If I was a long-lost Busch heir who was able to reacquire the brand this is what I would do:
- Bring back the original 1876 recipe. Minimally, I would at least make Budweiser taste more like it did back in 1876 when it conceivably had more malt flavor, more body, a higher level of alcohol, and more bitterness. The Budweiser of today is not the same as it was back then as the beer has slowly gotten weaker over the years. It is probably not even the same as it was when I started drinking Bud in the early 2000s. If there are any small changes that make sense to the original recipe using 2015 ingredients and processes that’s fine as long as it makes the beer taste better. Even Jim Koch wasn’t 100% faithful to the old family recipe for Boston Lager. Taste can’t be sacrificed in any way as part of the re-brand.
- Emphasize quality: Introducing a more flavorful Budweiser should be accompanied by a corresponding emphasis on the quality of beer in the marketing. Millennials want to know where their food and drink comes from. Talk about how the 1876 recipe has been brought back or how the new Budweiser is “inspired by the 1876 recipe”. Also talk about the steps that are taken to emphasize quality including the brewing process, packaging, and ingredient procurement. Having the various brewmasters vaguely talk about their pride in their work doesn’t make beer drinkers feel better about the product. Give us tangible examples of and reasons for the beer’s quality. Talk about how being part of the world’s largest beer conglomerate helps build and maintain quality. Any professional brewer would say that being bigger and having more resources makes it easier to make better beer.
- Educate consumers on traditional American styles of beer: One of the myths about American beer is that the use of un-malted adjuncts like corn and rice was to save money; in reality it was and is a necessity with the use of traditional American 6-row barley. Educate consumers on why Budweiser and similar beers are made the way they are. Augustus Busch didn’t set out to make swill. He made the best and most accessible beer he could with the ingredients he had available. The American lager evolved for the same reasons as other styles of beer evolved when and where they did.
- Continue to emphasize the history of the brand: Budweiser has always done this, but not always effectively. Calling yourself “The Great American Lager” while continuing to weaken the product is corporate double-speak at it’s worst. Restoring the flavor of the past, emphasizing traditional American brewing methods, and using the same yeast for 140 years is what makes a classic beer. Tell us about that! They should also continue promotions like the limited edition wood crates which are currently selling for over $200 on eBay. Connecting with the past brings a certain romance that the early craft beer pioneers and other iconic brands like Guinness have done as well.
- Don’t be afraid to innovate: To be fair Budweiser has tried to do this. Budweiser Black Crown was the result of a contest among the various Budweiser brewmasters to come up with something new. While reviving the classic recipe, why not try making Budweiser variations with some of the exciting new hops varieties that have been developed? Budweiser with Cascade, Budweiser with Mosiac, the possibilities are endless. Even if it just a very small dry hop addition it would have an effect on the flavor and be an interesting balance of the old and the new.
Budweiser was always intended to strike the perfect balance. To be flavorful, but still approachable enough to appeal to the widest possible market. In the past 15-20 years Bud Light has taken over being the beer of the masses. The light beer drinker regards Budweiser as too heavy. Conversely the Budweiser brand carries considerable baggage among discerning beer drinkers. To a lot of people it has epitomized everything that is wrong with American beer.
These steps may not make Budweiser the number one beer in America again, but Dos Equis has shown that with the right marketing a brand can grow its sales and market share quickly. By elevating the brand, the brand can lose the negative connotations around it. That needs to be the first step of any Bud revival. Somebody looking to try a beer for the first time, who wants something good, won’t try Budweiser if it is widely perceived to be crap. Elevating and restoring the flavor, while conveying a message of quality and tradition will shift those perceptions.