Wednesday, May 24, 2006
From the empire of wet air to the arrogant bastard's lair.
Here’s a story that passed almost unnoticed.
Mitch Steele goes to Stone Brewing.
Long ago and far away – roughly 1996, according to my shaky memory – Anheuser-Busch dipped its bloated toe into mockrobrewing for the first time, releasing a line of beers called American Originals, and expanding its Michelob line to include a wheat beer and a couple others that soon disappeared.
A-B’s uncharacteristic behavior during the midpoint of the Clinton administration naturally was calculated as a response to the exploding microbrewing segment of the market.
To no one’s surprise, the mockrobrews A-B released were technically impeccable, but just as predictably, they utterly lacked those tiny angles and fringe quirks that generally point the way to beery creations that are truly excellent, as opposed to merely proficient.
Well, would you expect any more or any less from a practicing megabrewer?
After all, the conceptual basis of microbrewing couldn’t be further from a multi-national marketing machine’s everyday existence as a supplier of consistent, low-common-denominator commodities to a market uninterested in experimentation.
To be sure, the beer market has changed somewhat in the ten years since A-B’s short-lived American Originals experiment, providing the megabrewer with a second opportunity to siphon business away from genuine craft brewers through the release of a newer generation of mockrobrews like Bare Knuckle Stout and seasonal pumpkin-laced and barrel-aged beers.
At the time, Budweiser was on tap at Sportstime Pizza, and I decided to conduct an experiment in social engineering.
One of the American Originals was the purported recreation of a golden lager called Faust, which was named for a St. Louis restaurateur and brewed for him as a house brand by A-B circa 1900. I bought four kegs of Faust, yanked Budweiser, scattered the P-O-S materials around the pizzeria, and instructed the employees to pitch the new beer as an A-B product just like Budweiser, and furthermore, one that we were prepared to sell at the very same price as Budweiser even though the cost per keg was higher.
Sales of bottled Bud skyrocketed, it took a month to sell two kegs, and by the time the third was ready for tapping, the “sell-by” dates were expired, and the wholesaler bought back the kegs. Brand-loyal Budweiser drinkers wouldn’t touch Faust at the same price point because it wasn’t Budweiser, and although it was a good product, the aficionados hanging out at Rich O’s wouldn’t drink it, either, because it was suspiciously inexpensive and emanated from the hated monolith.
After a year or so, the grand American Originals mockrobrewing experiment sank from sight, although some of the brands lived on as part of the Michelob line of beers, but during the course of investigating it, there began a correspondence that eventually led to something earthshaking: A guest appearance at a FOSSILS club meeting by the Anheuser-Busch brewmaster who had been placed in charge of the mockrobrewing program by virtue of his previous experience in the microbrewing segment.
He brought A-B mockrobrews to Rich O’s for all to taste, unflinchingly endured the inevitable grilling, answered questions about his take on the eternal conflict between art and commerce, and earned respect from those in attendance even if most continued to nurse contempt for his employer.
The brewmaster was Mitch Steele.
Soon afterward, Mitch accepted a different position within the corporate leviathan. At some point, I read that he had moved to A-B’s facility in Merrimack, New Hampshire.
Now he’s back in California, working with Stone Brewing Company – one of the prime exemplars of the methods and attitudes that define craft brewing and set it apart from commodity brewing.
It’s a perfect fit … but it’s a strange, strange world nonetheless.
(Photo credits: Stone Brewing and the Stein Site)