Preface and Personal Notes
I did not begin drinking until I was 22. Unlike many of my fellow high school and junior college students, I opted not to begin drinking in part because I had no desire to. In hindsight I know it was also because I never tasted a beer I enjoyed until I was over the drinking age limit. As a child my family largely consumed Budweiser, Bud Light and Corona. I never witnessed them drinking a craft beer, and only recently has my love for well-crafted and flavorful beers made an impact on my parents. Like so many American families, the Ortegas largely drank macrobrewed American Adjunct Lagers; the red and white can or bottle is almost synonymous with summer barbeques and family gatherings. We kids were given sips of the adult’s beer; but every time I tasted the yellow, effervescent liquid I quickly spit it out. My mind associated beer with Budweiser for most of my life, and I eschewed beer in all of its forms until only five or six years ago.
I do not hold it against my family for opting to drink corporate beer for so long, they have been acculturated for decades to purchase and consume this product. The dominancy of a homogenized and ubiquitous beer like Budweiser continues to this day. Being a historian, I cannot deny the importance of the Anheuser-Busch company has had on American beer. For better or worse, the current status of beer production and consumption has been shaped by the influence of this now worldwide conglomerate, if for no other reason than because it was our antagonist; what drove so many men and women to homebrewing and eventually the craft movement. The craft market now controls a sizable portion of the dollar amount and volume of beer produced in America. Yet Anheuser Busch InBev still remains dominant, its smallest production facilities dwarfing even the largest of craft breweries in the nation.
While on a trip near the San Francisco Bay area I visited Fairfield and the Anheuser-Busch InBev brewery. In conducting research for a Master’s Thesis on the history of the craft beer movement, I took it as necessary to investigate the ideological opposite. Craft beer drinkers have a multitude of opinions concerning macrobreweries like AB InBev; from complete acceptance to outright hatred. These opinions must be informed by some experience, some facts. For many, their opinions of macrobrews were formed simply by tasting their products in relation to craft beers. While my first experiences with Budweiser are not far from how I feel about it now, I still wished to learn more about the company that earns so much of craft drinker’s antipathy. I wanted to know how they perceive themselves to the public, how they look with their best foot forward.
Along with a good friend from Oakland, we took the Beermaster Tour available at the Fairfield location. Tickets were $25 for adult visitor, and included tastings throughout the tour. Upon arrival in the main gate we walked along the front perimeter of the facility. A chain link fence topped with barbed wire surrounded much of the brewery, separating us by 75 to 100 yards from the buildings. A plastic miniature Clydesdale stood along the walkway to the visitor center; a brass sign at its feet asks guests not to mount the already worn statue.
Upon entering I was hit by a faint smell of malted grains, but was also had a slight sickliness to it; possibly from the water treatment and reclamation chemicals utilized by the brewery. The visitor center contained a check in desk, merchandise shop, and a tasting room. I was struck at the fact that there were Budweiser labeled growlers and flight paddles, two items I typically associate with brewpubs and micro/craft breweries (although it should be noted that growlers and small glasses are not recent developments of the craft movement, but their use has been popularized with the microbrewing revolution). The tasting room offered 6 tap handles and several bottle offerings, all AB InBev products. The tap handles for Budweiser and Stella Artois were the most prominently displayed a clear indicator of the global corporate influence InBev has had on the once American owned company. There was sitting room for roughly 50 patrons, but given its distance from anything around it, limited offerings and lack of food, I wondered how often the taproom was occupied by those not on a tour.
We were gathered at 2:00pm for our tour by a staff member. All guests were asked to sign a liability waver, clearing AB InBev of any responsibility in the event a guest is injured or killed while on company grounds. We were given hats, goggles, ear plugs and an ear piece microphone to hear our tour guide speak throughout the facility. We were also asked not to film anything, nor capture company employees in our photographs.
The Red Beast of Fairfield
(All information and statistics were provided by AB InBev staff unless otherwise noted)
The Fairfield facility is the second smallest of the AB InBev breweries. It produces 4.4 million barrels of beer annually (a fourth of the St. Louis facility’s production, which produces roughly 16.6 million barrels annually). It was built in 1976 and is the second AB InBev brewery in California; the first was built in Van Nuys in 1954, near a Busch family mansion in Pasadena that later became the theme park, Busch Gardens. The brewery serves regions in North and Mid-Western United States; California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Nebraska were the states listed by our tour guide. As we walked into the production area we entered into a vast empty space that once held the bottling line. Currently only cans and kegs are produced in Fairfield, the drop in demand for bottled beer resulting in the removal of the glass bottling equipment. This was in part caused by changes in law banning the use of glass containers in sporting stadiums/arenas.
We found ourselves outdoors in the loading depot area. Truck docks and a rail line through the facility send out shipments frequently, totaling 45 truckloads per day. The outdoors area had a horrible smell as recycling stations were nearby; the putrid scent of bio-waste mixed with beer does not make for easy breathing. However the tour was quick to point out AB InBev’s initiatives to cut back waste and lessen their environmental foot print. A single wind powered turbine provides 20% of the facility’s power. This equates to 25,000 cases of beer per day. They also lauded their roof mounted solar array, which provides 4% of the facility’s power when fully operational.
Throughout the tour we were told about AB InBev history, although at several points were glossed over, such as how Budweiser got its name or the influence of Carl Conrad in acquiring the original recipe of the Czech pilsner. The InBev buyout in 2007 was also chalked up to but a few sentences, its significance downplayed as a normal market action; not a major buyout of a historic, family owned (albeit public traded) American company by a multinational corporation. Despite being tight lipped about the change in ownership, the tour was open about Budweiser being brewed with rice, and the corn-grits that are used in the production of Bud Light.
Brewhouse and Fermentation Room
The group was guided through the Brewhouse where we were allowed to peek inside the massive 625 barrel mash-cookers and brew kettles. On the Brewhouse floor were boxes of ingredients; I noticed coriander powder and dried orange peels, likely for an upcoming batch of Shock Top. Nearby was a refrigerated hop storage room. On the floor were several boxes of dried, pelletized hops; the varieties listed on the boxes. I counted Willamette, Saaz, and Columbus among the inventory. We were all given a sample pellet to smell and, if we felt daring enough, to chew. I opted to eat the pellet thinking it was a mild Saaz or some other Czech variety, but a punch of bitterness hit me fairly hard. Curious as to what I just ate, I asked what strain we were given. I was surprised that we were given a Columbus pellet. Unfortunately I neglected to ask what product utilizes Columbus hops at the time. A short discussion of IBUs followed. We were told the Budweiser has an IBU of 10, whereas Bud Light contains roughly 5 IBUs. I held back a chuckle as we were told that some people prefer Bud Light over Budweiser, “because it [Budweiser] is too hoppy.”
I should also mention the pallet of containers listed as Redihop, a reddish liquid that appeared to be a hop extract product. There were also sacks of ammonium sulfate and containers of Novozym, which is a sort of liquid enzyme that aids the brewing process. Those of you more knowledgeable of the science and chemistry of brewing may have better insights on the purpose of these products. Commentary at the end of the page is welcomed and appreciated.
After taking a service elevator deeper into the facility, we found ourselves in the fermentation rooms. All along the corridors we were surrounded by massive fermenters that held 55,800 gallons per tank. An open canister of beechwood chips was on display for guests to pick up and inspect. We were told that 800 lbs. of beechwood chips is added to every fermentation tank of Budweiser to help the clarification of the beer; it is also run through 22 filter screens for further clarification.
At this point of the tour all of the guests of legal drinking age were allowed to sample Budweiser, Bud Light, and Shock Top from the fermentation tanks, before pasteurization. The samples tasted incredibly fresh and clear. Samples of Budweiser had bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass, likely in part because of the micro etched logo at the bottom of the glass. There was an ominous feeling walking amid the tanks in the dimly lit hallways, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of gallons of beer that I do not like. Repeatedly I had to mentally reconcile my presence in the brewery, the force which I stand against, as if undercover in enemy territory.
The Tasting Room
The tour ended by following the canning line back toward the beginnings of our route. The conveyor belt carried 25oz Budweiser cans, emblazoned with the American flag, to be filled at a rate of 1000 per minute (12oz cans are filled at a rate of 1800 per minute). The batches canned in preparation for the summer months and the Fourth of July. The Anheuser-Busch company strategy of equating Budweiser with all that is American continues on, inexorably.
At the tasting room we were given two tokens for free 6oz samples of any AB InBev product at the brewery. If I wished to taste something I thought I would somewhat enjoy I would have ordered a Hoegaarden, but wanting to have a beer I would never buy again, I opted for Budweiser Black Crown. My friend and I opted to give our second tokens to a friendly family from Wisconsin; we chatted with the father about homebrewing and some of the fine breweries from their state, like New Glarus. We were all given certificates by our tour guide, congratulating us for our participation on the tour. I spoke with our tour guide for a few minutes, asking about senior staff and managers at the plant, how busy the tap room gets, events held at the brewery, and potential interview opportunities for my project. The last question was misleading on my part, as AB InBev has already informed me via email that it is against company policy for employees to conduct interviews. She informed me that I could email their public relations department and inquire online. Sensing that the staff was uncomfortable with my questions about their managers and brewers, we left shortly thereafter.
Comfortable with Heresy
Before heading back home we took a short side trip just north east of AB InBev to a small microbrewery called Heretic Brewing Company, an appropriate name given the small company’s motto; “Don’t Drink Ordinary Beer.” I had a ‘Miscreant’ dark sour that was exquisite, strong and deep malt flavors surrounded in a slightly sharp tartness, while my friend enjoyed a Pale Ale. Perhaps it is my own particular outlook on microbrewers vis-à-vis giants like Budweiser, but the small, utilitarian Heretic taproom offered a far more authentic beer drinking experience than the tasting room at AB InBev, brashly decorated with massive metal plaques, intricate woodworking, and recycled glass/granite countertops. The beertender was very friendly at Heretic, informing me of the short company history, the beers on tap, and other areas north of the SF Bay area to take in a good beer.
Only planning on making a short stop at the microbrewery, my friend and I found ourselves there for nearly two hours; catching up, enjoying a few more rounds, and admiring the boldness of the small rebel fighting against the Red Beast just down the road.
If being a heretic is to enjoy better beer, then I’ll be damned.
(Of course I took full advantage of my trip to the Bay Area, more Adventures in the North will be posted soon)