Hidden amid the sprawling campus of Anheuser-Busch headquarters in downtown St. Louis is a lab devoted to bleeding edge beer. “If you can think of any kind of food, herb, or spice, we probably have tried it,” says Jill Vaughn, head brewmaster of the Research Pilot Brewery (RPB). “We don’t commercialize everything we play with, but it leads to things that might have a broader appeal.”
Like most multinational brewers, Anheuser-Busch owns an enviable default position among consumers, but is constantly under attack by Lilliputian microbrewers and their advocates. The macrobrewers answer to them is Shock Top: a brand of specialty brews created by Vaughn. “Our work in the Research Pilot Brewery is an investment,” says Eli Aguilera, director of imports, crafts, and specialties at Anheuser-Busch. Shock Top, which debuted as a traditional Belgian-Style wheat ale created in 2006, has to fight the microbrewers town by town.
You can see part of Shock Top’s story just by browsing Beer Advocate, which rates hundreds of thousands of beers. The site ranks the standard Budweiser brew at a paltry 56 out of 100, or, “awful.” The original Shock Top blend moved up in the ranks with a score of 69 and a “poor” rating. Then Vaughn’s team had a good brainstorming session: the RPB brewmasters wanted to craft something inspired by the St. Louis region. They tried barbecue, bacon, gooey butter coffee cake, and even attempted a breaded-and-fried ravioli flavor (known as “toasted ravioli” throughout the city).
The answer was right under their noses. On any given day near Broadway and Lynch Street, two aromas from the area’s old-world German heritage waft through the St. Louis air: Anheuser-Busch brew and Gus’ Pretzels, hand twisted since 1920. Thus, the idea for Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat was born. Its rating on Beer Advocate? 79.
Those ratings are driven mostly by festival tasters: Each year, Anheuser-Busch sends one or two of its most-loved, experimental Shock Top blends to hundreds of beer festivals across the country to see what a broader beer-drinking audience will imbibe. This year, they’ll participate in 464 festivals.
Anheuser-Busch gauges a successful brew by looking at the total number of samples by variant at each festival. If a product gets good marks, like Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat has done so far this festival season, it moves past the pilot stage and into koozies nationwide. (The pretzel blend will be available in Shock Top’s winter sampler pack on October 20.)
When brewers are brainstorming, the pilot brewery feels less like meetings and more like hanging out with friends at bar on a Friday night. “It’s a casual environment,” Vaughn says. “It’s about what inspires us as brewers.”
Often, weirdness seems to inspire them. Aiming for a dessert-inspired beer, the brewers toyed with flavors included in creme brulee and bananas foster. They hit their sweet spot with an unfiltered blend brewed in bananas, brown sugar, honey, cinnamon, and citrus peel. (Shock Top Spiced Banana Wheat will debut at its first beer festival August 18.)
They tried out minty beer, but it didn’t work: the brewmasters discovered that fresh mint leaves make for a slimy brew. Meaty beer? No good either, unless it’s bacon. Brewmasters found the sweet, smoky flavors associated with St. Louis-style barbecue taste better on a plate than in a bottle. Last year, they debuted a spicy blend: Ghost Pepper Wheat, containing one of the world’s spiciest peppers on the Scoville scale, along with lime and agave.
Like Sriracha? For spicy, savory-loving palates, Vaughn suggests Chelada, an aluminum-canned mix of Budweiser or Bud Light and tomato cocktail Clamato.
How about squid? Vaughn scrunches her face, and refers to how bacon is seemingly the only meat flavor that mixes well with beer.
Okay, so how about Buckeyes? The Ohio State University graduate’s eyes light up at the thought of the sweet and salty mix of the peanut butter and chocolate. There isn’t yet an Anheuser-Busch beer combining the two, but Vaughn said she would try to get one ready for sampling.
“We focus on innovation because, in the end, our customers want it,” says Vaughn. And, one suspects, because they can’t help themselves from taking advantage of all this brewing technology. Who could?