Budweiser’s too big to be Busch-league

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You know that nightmare where you’re back in school, sitting in geometry class for the final exam and you’re in a sweaty panic because, geez, you skipped every class that semester?

Well it came true last week for Joe Sixpack, and I’m still shaking with fear.

Somehow, I found myself nervously sharpening my No. 2 pencil at Budweiser Beer School, the Anheuser-Busch rolling classroom that docked at Penn’s Landing for the July 4th festivities. It’s a clever A-B marketing scheme to educate retailers and consumers on the fine points of brewing. A pair of hefty tractor-trailers open up to seat about 50 students in front of a 3-D schematic of Budweiser’s complex brewing process. Everything from grinding the grains to the fabled beechwood aging is covered in hour-long sessions.

On this morning, though, class was attended by just me and fellow beer guy Jim Anderson, and neither of us have had a glass of Bud in years. The two of us were in for a little remedial education.

Our instructor was John Grygalonis, a brewmaster at A-B’s Williamsburg, Va., plant, who has worked at Bud for 17 years. Naturally, he stuck to the official Budweiser curriculum, so he skipped the chapter about the microbrewing renaissance that has weaned many of us from megabrews in the past 10 years. Even A-B has had to reckon with the craft-brew phenomenon, gobbling up microbreweries like Red Hook of Seattle to get a foothold in the specialty beer market.

And its ballyhooed born-on dates never would have been stamped on its bottles if micro fans hadn’t discovered the pleasure of drinking fresh beer.

But forget that micro stuff. What you learn in Bud School is: BIGGER IS BETTER.

With 12 breweries across the country, A-B produces 45 percent of all the beer consumed in America. It buys its grains by the trainload, it owns three malt houses (most breweries purchase their malt), and runs hops farms in Idaho and Germany.

“We’re No. 1 in sales,” Professor Grygalonis said. “We didn’t get that way by skimping on ingredients.”

The mammoth operation requires A-B to test and retest its brew, so that a Michelob Light tastes the same, whether it was brewed in St. Louis or Newark, N.J. Anyone who has enjoyed Stoudt’s Abbey Triple from Adamstown, Pa., for instance, knows that consistency is not a microbrewery strong point. The triple is a great beer, but it doesn’t always taste the same from batch to batch.

“I think microbrewers are kind of amazed at the process, the quality that goes into Budweiser,” Grygalonis said.

Much of this impressive effort, though, seems designed to remove any distinctive character from the finished product. Take a good whiff from your next can – you wouldn’t know that Bud uses up to nine different hops varieties. And that beechwood aging imparts zero taste – it’s part of a process called krausening that adds carbonation and clarifies the beer to give Bud its crystal-clear appearance.

Some would call Budweiser bland. But not me. At least not until school’s out.

But first, there was the matter of a final exam. Grygalonis turned to me and asked: What are the five ingredients of beer?

Oh no, a trick question! Almost everywhere else in the world – including A-B’s ancestral homeland, Germany – there are four basic ingredients in beer: water, barley, hops and yeast. Bud, however, adds rice – a lot of it. Nine percent of all domestic rice is purchased by A-B.

Grygalonis said Bud uses rice to give it “a light, crisp, refreshing taste.” But between you and me, it’s because rice is cheaper than barley. Almost anyone who has ever enjoyed an all-malt beer can tell the difference.

But I’m no dunce. I answer the question and graduate with flying colors. School’s out – the nightmare’s over.

The beer school curriculum does include some useful hints for enjoying brew, no matter whose label is on the bottle. One lesson – the proper way to pour beer – might seem trite, but I see people screw this up routinely. They gingerly tip the bottle to let the contents trickle down the side in some twisted attempt to unmercifully kill the head.

Maybe your mother never told you this, but beer head is good. Those little bubbles are carbon dioxide releasing itself from your brew. If it doesn’t come out in the head, there’s only one other place for the CO2 to go: your gut. Yo, I enjoy a good belch as much as the next guy, but the more gas you consume, the less beer you drink.

So pour the beer down the middle of your glass. Shoot for about an inch of head.

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No takers, so far, on last month’s Ortlieb’s offer. I’ll trade a dinner and a round of brews at Poor Henry’s Brewery in Northern Liberties for a sixpack of Joe’s beer.

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