You wouldn’t have heard this exchange last year:
”Have you tried the new bourbon oak barrel beer from Anheuser-Busch?”
A-B regularly tests a variety of products in many markets, often with hopes they’ll develop into something bigger. That’s not the plan with three beers available now – they are one-offs (seasonals) willing to appeal to a smaller audience. The beers:
Celebrate: A 10% abv lager infused with with milled vanilla beans and aged with heavily toasted bourbon oak barrel staves in the maturation tank.
Brew Masters’ Private Reserve: An 8.5% lager brewed only with first runnings (the richest part of the mash) and offered in a 46.5-ounce magnum bottle.
Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale: The new draft-only seasonal, a 6% abv ale brewed with dark roasted caramel malts and whole Madagascar vanilla beans, and also aged on bourbon barrel staves.
Not only are these beers different, but producing them is as well. At the A-B plant in St. Louis where Celebrate and Private Reserve were brewed a small run usually produces 3,000 barrels (9,300 gallons of beer). These two were brewed in smaller quantities.
“We’ve been learning to use our equipment in a more flexible way,” said brewer Nathaniel Davis, a member of the New Products Group formed in 2004. “We’re coming at these beer from the consumer’s standpoint. We’ve scaled down or used partial tanks, and this allows us not to require enormous volume.”
Although A-B has not released a holiday-type beer since the late 1990s, the company has a tradition of brewing such specials. “We have evidence of rich Christmas brews, but we don’t have the recipes,” Davis said. In earlier days, these beers were sometimes made only at local breweries and given to employees and special customers.
The Private Reserve comes with a swing top closure. “It lends itself to camaraderie. The pop is like a champagne cork,” Davis said. He said the beer has enough carbonation to pop a couple of times, but the beer really is meant to be consumed in a single session by several drinkers.
“I like it as it warms up,” he said. The same is true of Celebrate, which is sold by the single 24-ounce bottle or with two 13.5-ounce snifters. “You want to serve it in an appropriately wide glass. You really want it to open up,” Davis said.
“I’d taste it (Celebrate) up to room temperature,” Davis said. “I’ve even mulled it.”
Is there a target audience for these beers? “We are getting tremendous feedback across the board,” Davis said. “We love to talk about beer. We’re passionate about what we’re doing.”
The Winter’s Bourbon Cask is the second in A-B seasonal series, following Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale.
Although the ingredients are similar, “Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale and Michelob Celebrate are two different beers,” said brewer Florian Kuplent, another member of the New Products Group. “Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale is an all-malt, draft ale that is best enjoyed served cold and has a tawny color and hoppy aroma.
“Michelob Celebrate is a lager beer best enjoyed while sipping at room temperature. … Although both beers share a few of the ingredients we’ve found people enjoy during the winter and holiday seasons – each one has a distinct taste.”
Just as Davis points out the swing top on Private Reserve invites sharing, Kuplent says Bourbon Cask is designed to be enjoyed in a communal setting. “It’s a great complement to an evening out with friends and family and is perfect for enjoying over storytelling, taking refuge from the stresses of the day, and escaping the blustery weather outdoors,” he said.
A quick note: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently profiled the Research Pilot Brewery and the Brewing New Products Group. An interesting read, including the fact that Chairman August A. Busch III suggested a beer using blueberries.