I take it all back. Last week, A-B's beer makers flew me and a dozen other beer writers to their Elk Mountain hop farm in northern Idaho for the hop harvest. (Those are hop flowers in the photo right here. They sure are purty, aren't they? Like little pine cones filled with beer flavor and aroma.)
I spent two days in the company of the brewers and their beers, where they hit me upside the head with a 20-pound sledgehammer called the Cold, Hard Beer Facts.
But before I talk about them, I want to set one thing straight. The Anheuser-Busch brewers are also deeply proud of Budweiser and Bud Light and Michelob Ultra and all the beers they brew up every day at their 12 American breweries. If I say they're proud of these little specialty beers that so tickled my fancy, I do not mean to imply that they are "relieved" to "finally" be brewing some "real beers." That's elitist horsedung.
There are things they're making that maybe rub them the wrong way a little (like a weird little idea called Spykes: 1.5-ounce, 12-percent juice bombs for your beer, in flavors like Hot Melons). But they're brewers, first, last and always, and they made it clear that they think they're some of the best. These guys might be corporate, but they aren't lacking in attitude.
One of the other beers they're proud of is their newest: Rolling Rock. As a Pennsylvania native, born and bred on the Rock – and Iron City
, Stegmaier and Straub – from early on in my beer-drinking career, A-B's purchase of the Rolling Rock brand and subsequent removal of its production from "the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe" pissed me off deep in the suds of my soul. Make Rolling Rock in Newark, will you?
The whole trip, the brewers couldn't shut up about how hard they worked on making Rock taste just like Rock.
Smart-ass writers: "So, what about those glass-lined tanks? Gonna put those in?"
A-B brewers: "Got 'em already. We prefer stainless tanks, but glass-lined tanks were state of the art in 1939, and we still have them at Newark. Sure are a pain in the neck to maintain, but we'll use them for Rolling Rock."
And they've got water from the highlands of upstate New Jersey (which are actually a lot like the Laurel Highlands). Much as I tried to hate it, Newark Rock really did taste like Latrobe Rock.
Hey, but I know you're all dying to hear about those specialty beers. Ha ha, okay, about five of you are dying for it. The rest of you, suffer. I'll tell you all about the hop harvest in another column; suffice it to say that for a beer freak, it was the very balls.
The beers, those were the balls, too.
We walked into the first dinner and there were the prizes of the evening: tubs of Michelob Porter, Demon's Hopyard IPA, Burnin' Helles (a whopper of a hellerbock) and Wild Hop organic pale ale and lager. I was all over the Michelob Porter, a dark beauty with a smooth rich swallow to it.
The Wild Hop lager was my preference of the two Wild Hops: smooth, medium body, firmly bitter but not overdone on hopping. Spring Heat Spice Wheat was a nicely spiced witbier, cloudy and tart with citrus peel), while Beach Bum Blond Ale was the low point for me: a decent blond ale, but blown away by the other beers. A silkily frosted chocolate cake for dessert was served with the big Michelob Celebrate Vanilla Oak, which I still think is too heavy for its weight class, a bit syrupy.
Lunch at the hop farm was salmon three ways (roasted, alder-smoked and hickory-smoked – I had big portions of all three and it made me moan), fork-tender beef
tenderloin and roasted potatoes, all out in the open air by the Kootenai River, accompanied by more big tubs of tasty beer. (That's the Kootenai there in the photo. It's big and rugged and wild. And a great place to drink beer.)
We would have one more big feed that night at the resort, where they would introduce the Michelob Bavarian Style Wheat in big, proper weissbier glasses. It was excellent, a correct, direct hit on the style, and we polished off a 2.5-gallon keg in under 20 minutes. We got Michelob Porter with bison kabobs, more Hopyard IPA with a whopping big chunk of local Kobe-style beef in a Michelob Porter gravy.
The Michelob Celebrate made a re-appearance at dessert (a baseball-sized globe of chocolate mousse), but this time it had been aged on a bed of roasted cocoa
beans: all the difference in the world, this stuff was great and I Maxwell-Housed it, sucking the last drop off the edge of the glass.
Thirsty? You'll be seeing the new Michelob beers in this fall's Michelob Variety Pack. Wild Hop's going national soon, probably under the fictitious "Green Valley" brewery name. Hopyard IPA is available in New England, and Burnin' Helles can be found in Ohio. They're part of an effort by A-B to create regional beers. Look for Celebrate Chocolate in upscale markets nationally this winter.
What's the upshot? First things first: No one buys me for the price of a trip. If these beers I'm raving about sucked, I wouldn't be telling you otherwise. For instance, they also served us "Wild Blue," an 8-percent blueberry beer that was deep purple and sickly sweet, kind of like beer made out of the goop in between the blueberries in blueberry pie. Not something I'd serve to anyone.
The main point is this. Having the A-B marquee on beers like this gives them acceptability to the larger group of beer drinkers. They're not weird beers. They're just different beers, and that's all they ever have been. This is a significant step. My hat's off to A-B for doing this.
But nine years ago, I was at another lunch on the Kootenai River. A-B had flown me and about 40 other beer writers out for the 1997 hop harvest. And they fed us and gave us a bunch of really great beers: an IPA, a hefeweizen, a porter, a scotch ale, a helles. They launched them as the American Originals line and as some Michelob specialties. And within 18 months, they were all gone except for Michelob Amber Bock.
What's it all mean? I think it means that A-B got caught in the collapse of the fad of microbrews eight years ago just like a bunch of microbrewers did. The huge growth in micros back then – 20, 30, 40 percent a year – was being fueled by trendoids who didn't really like the beers. They ran on to the next thing – hot apple martinis, I think – and the bottom dropped out.
The growth is real this time – and solid. It is fueled by people who actually like these kinds of beers and go looking for them, people who haven't been brainwashed by marketing. It remains to be seen if these people will drink A-B's specialty beers because they're honestly very good beers, or if they'll reject them because they can't get past the idea that "microbrews" have to be made by small brewers.
I have four simple rules for liking a beer. Does it taste good? Does it taste good the next time I have it? Is it reasonably priced? Is it made by convicts, slave labor or small children? If the answers are yes, yes, yes and no, that's all that matters. Put them in a blind tasting and find out if you really like them.
If you do, just shut up and drink.