Big Brewers Making Specialty Beer: Lessons from MillerCoors

Multinational beer companies hire the very best talent they can find, and the brewers and chemists at Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors certainly have the experience and knowledge to brew any beer in the world.  But there's a real question about whether or not they're any better poised than craft breweries to compete purely on the basis of quality.

Last week, I had a rare opportunity to see what happens when a large brewery "unleashes" its brewers to make any beers they want.  In the case of MillerCoors, these are small, specialty-arms of the company that look just like craft breweries: the Sandlot, AC Golden, and the Tenth Street Brewery and Miller Valley Brewery (both in Milwaukee).  I was pretty psyched to see what their brewers could produce, and the line-up, which included six beers, four of them 8% and higher, was intriguing.  It is essentially the reverse of turning craft styles into commodity beer--it's when giant breweries attempt to make the kind of specialty beer that will never become mainstream.   The results were surprising and illuminating, and here are the lessons I took away from the experience.

Lesson 1: Good Beer Is Really Hard
I don't care how badass you are or how many letters follow your title: it's really hard to brew beer that is complex yet balanced, characterful yet drinkable.  You don't just whip up a world classic because you want to. 

Let's start where I started, with Sandlot's Wildpitch Hefe Weizen (4.4%). It was properly cloudy and had a light clove aroma.  But a sip revealed a problem: the malts were wrong.  It of course employs wheat, but that's only half the battle.  Wildpitch was thin and hollow, not soft and round.  A good weizen depends not only on wheat, but the aromatics and flavor of German malts, usually pilsner.  This beer, which was so thin it almost had a cidery quality, bore the telltale signs of American two-row.  One of the brewers, Addison Horine, was on hand and he confirmed the malt bill.  Nice yeast character, more clove than banana (as I prefer), but that wasn't enough.  

That experience was typical.  Like so many one-off craft beers I've tried over the decades, the beers had some fine qualities, but none cohered into excellence.  The others:
  • Frederick Miller Chocolate Lager (5.5%), made with cocoa nibs.  Sally called it, accurately, a liquid Tootsie Roll.  It was well made, but tasted and smelled like Hershey's chocolate syrup.  Pleasant enough, but it didn't really taste like beer.
  • Tenth Street Fragrant Fire (11.9%), a bourbon-aged "rye wine" made with Sichuan peppercorns, tien-tsin peppers, and Chinese mustard seeds.  A strange melange that I actually  enjoyed.  The whiskey and spice harmonized in an odd but pleasing way (though they didn't please Sally)--sort of like a gingery rum cake.  A worthy experiment.
  • Tenth Street Big Eddy Stout (10.5%), a blend that had aged in bourbon barrels one and three years.  The base beer was slightly thin on the palate, but suitably velvety and only inflected--not saturated--in bourbon.  But here's the really shocking part: it had quite a bit of brettanomyces.  Nowhere in the description did it mention this, nor in my discussion with the MillerCoors people.  I assume it was a wild infection people were just pretending didn't exist.  (In fact, it was a fairly interesting flavor element.)
  • AC Golden Brewing Goldenator Doppelbock (7.8%).  The brewery proudly talked about double decocting it, but this beer was a disaster.  It had no malt character--more American malts?--and punched under its weight.  But what really shocked me were the esters--tons of them.  In a blind tasting, there's no way I would have guessed it was supposed to be a lager.  Bocks work because, despite having lots of malt sweetness, they are lager-clean and ester-free. 
  • Sandlot Nine Inch Ale (9.3%), a double IPA.  A strange bird that everyone was promoting.  Double IPAs are typically brewed thin so that the malt doesn't interfere with the hopping, especially tons of late-addition and dry-hopping.  This beer was the reverse; a heavy, sweet beer balanced by thumping bitterness and only a trace of aroma and hop flavor.  More like an old-school American barley wine, and pretty far out of step with where modern IPAs are heading.
In sum, none of these beers was a world-beater (though I thought the Fragrant Fire was noteworthy), and one was infected.  I have no doubt that the brewers could eventually dial in most of these beers if they worked on them (though barrel-aging, as Tenth Street demonstrated, is inherently uncontrollable).  But being well-trained professionals does not make it any easier to walk up to the plate and hit a home run, especially with weird styles you've never brewed before.  It takes a lot of time and effort to make exceptional beer.

Lesson 2: Big Breweries Don't Know Specialty Beer
Making production beer requires a brewer to put his attention on consistency.  When I visited the Budweiser brewery in St. Louis, I came to understand the overwhelming focus on this element of brewing.  It's a critical skill if you're making millions of barrels of mass market beer, but it doesn't serve you well when you start pulling out the boubon barrels and Sichuan peppercorns.  Specialty beer--the styles we associate with craft breweries--has intense flavors.  Craft breweries who regularly deal in 50 IBUs have developed a different focus: how to make intense flavors harmonize.  As weird as it sounds, I think that if MillerCoors wants to make really tasty specialty beers (double IPAs and spiced ales and barrel-aged stouts), they should probably send their brewers off to apprentice at craft breweries.  It's one thing to make very consistent light lagers; it's quite another to manage a barrel room.

Lesson 3: Big Breweries Need to Bone Up on World Styles
The problem with three of the six beers on offer were partly or wholly an issue of not understanding the style.  Doppelbocks need to be smooth and malty, but they also need to be alcoholic, have malt flavors and aromas, and be clean so as not to cloy.  Double IPAs are a meditation on hops.  Weissbiers should have billowing malts.  Failing to understand these qualities isn't important just because I'm a style Nazi.  It's important because there's a reason those beers are brewed the way they are--those qualities make the beers work.  If you understand them inside out, it's possible to start riffing and deviating from the standard profile.  But you gotta understand the basics, first.

Lesson 4: Big Breweries Are Not Poised to Compete at a Micro Level
Okay, I didn't get this from tasting the beers, but in talking to Addison and Lisa Zimmer.  I was surprised that these one-offs weren't more widely available.  When New Belgium or Dogfish Head do a specialty one-off, they send kegs around to key markets.  Why wasn't MillerCoors doing that with these beers? 

It's because MillerCoors has as much trouble scaling down as smaller breweries have scaling up.  They have national relationships.  They work with very large distribution chains.  They do publicity and advertising on a mass level.  Trying to figure out how to scale things down and put these beers in certain bars with small-bore whisper campaigns is alien to a company MillerCoors' size.  These small breweries are great for R&D, but they're not ready to compete head-to-head with Upright or even Russian River.

Final Thoughts
The blending of the markets--craft and mass--is beginning, but it will be a slow process.  There are always going to be customers for truly exceptional beer, and smaller breweries are in a better position to produce it.  Big breweries have a lot more resources to bring to brewing, but if they want to compete on quality alone, I don't think this is going to do them a lot of good.  I am slightly melancholy about the prospect of "commodity craft," but more and more, I'm convinced that in the sphere of exceptional beer, it will always be the little guys who dictate the terms of the conversation.  They live and breathe this stuff, and when you're making beer, that's what you've got to do to make it the best.