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/// BEAUMONT'S JOURNAL
 
APRIL/MAY 2006 » BACK TO BEAUMONT'S JOURNAL INDEX
 
Beaumont's Journal
Look Who's Come to Dinner!
It’s been a long time since one of the American brew scene’s Big Three has caused this kind of a stir in the trenches of the craft-beer world.

More than a decade ago, of course, Coors (now Molson Coors) surprised one and all with its Blue Moon line of Belgian-style beers, and subsequently extended its reach to the grass roots of the Denver brewing community by opening the SandLot Brewery brewpub at Coors Field. And earlier still, Miller (now SABMiller) set beer-aficionado tongues to wagging by introducing its heavily hyped Miller Reserve line of craft-styled ales and, for good measure, also purchased of a couple of well-known craft breweries to call its own.

But while Sandlot continues to crank out noteworthy beers of an impressively autonomous pedigree, Blue Moon line extenders like the Abbey Ale are but distant memories, leaving only the flagship Belgian White and a seasonal Pumpkin Ale to fly the Molson Coors specialty banner. And SABMiller would no doubt be inclined to purge from memory its misadventures with Celis Brewing, the beers of which are now produced by Michigan Brewing, just as they have apparently forgotten the entire Reserve lineup.

All of which sets the stage for the latest machinations of Anheuser-Busch.

The boys in St. Louis have been uncharacteristically quiet these last few years. That is, until now.

Not that the largest brewing company in the United States has been completely dormant over this last decade of the craft-beer renaissance, mind you, what with buying up pieces of both Widmer Brewing and Redhook, and the release of various incarnations of Michelob, including the enduring Amber Bock. But the boys in St. Louis have been relatively and, it deserves to be added, uncharacteristically quiet these last few years. That is, until now.

The first rumblings came last summer with rumors that Anheuser-Busch was on another buying spree, flush with funds and intent on locking up sizable chunks of this regional craft brewery or that one. (I won’t dignify the rumors by mentioning the businesses involved and will instead simply note that, as I type these words in late February, none have proved true. Still, seldom is there smoke without fire, and some breweries have confirmed having been approached for discussions by A-B honchos.) Then there was the minor controversy when one of those selfsame regionals shifted distribution of its brands to an Anheuser-Busch house, inspiring a brief but emotional local boycott of its brands.

And then came the beers.

The first buzz emerged from Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, where A-B launched its Michelob Pumpkin Spice Ale. Having missed the fest myself, I was astonished to hear that a behemoth like A-B would be playing around with pumpkin and spices — yes, there is both fruit and spice in this beer — under the banner of one of its two core brands, no less. So imagine my surprise when the brewery followed that autumnal play with a 10% alcohol lager called Celebrate, another spin on the Michelob name, this one brewed with vanilla beans and aged on barrel staves from ex-bourbon casks. Quite a stretch from the brewery’s other new line extension, Michelob Ultra Amber, a low-calorie, low-carb and, let’s face it, low-flavour brew with a tarnished copper colour and light touch of toasty malt on the finish.

When I finally did have the opportunity to sample the new flavoured Michelobs, while not exactly overwhelmed, neither was I entirely disappointed. Billed as an “All Malt Seasonal Brew,” the Pumpkin Spice is the more tentative of the two, with distinct pumpkin pie spicing in the nose but not really enough body to carry the flavours through to the palate. In fact, so slight is the malt profile of this beer that the spices leave a mildly acrid flavour on the finish, something a bigger-bodied brew with greater sweetness would be able to avoid.

The vintage-dated Celebrate, on the other hand, though incongruously packaged in an oversized screw-cap bottle, is anything but shy: Big vanilla in the nose, massive vanilla with background bourbon, light peach and alcohol notes in the body and, yes, vanilla notes in the finish, too. Although my earnest colleague Mr. Jackson, in the pages of All About Beer Magazine, suggested serving this in a snifter with an ice cube, as you would a Bailey’s, I’m happy to sip it at cellar temperature … until I grow a little weary of its simplicity.

Now, you might think that two forays into craft brewing’s traditional territory would be enough for the brewer of Bud Light and Busch, but you’d be wrong. By Christmas, three more specialty brews had joined the A-B ranks.
Following in Celebrate’s steps, Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale arrived to mark the start of A-B’s new seasonal draft-only program. Less potent in both aroma and alcohol, the 6%, russet-coloured ale offers a milder vanilla nose than does Celebrate, backed by a subtle fruit cocktail of cherry, apricot and mandarin orange, and a well-balanced body showing more vanilla and fruit, very faint hints of spice and a slight note of the barrel’s charred wood. All in all, I thought, a better introduction to bourbon-accented beers than its bigger Michelob kin.

Significantly less successful is Wild Blue, a blueberry-flavoured lager that emits a perfume of blueberry perceptible from a distance of a couple of feet or more. In the body, it doesn’t taste much like anything other than blueberry, unless you count the notes from its 8% alcohol content evident in the second half and finish.

The mega-brewer’s best efforts, however, were reserved for the vintage-dated Brew Masters Private Reserve, an 8.5% ale that the marketing department defaced with some cock-and-bull back-label story about it being crafted from “the richest first part of the brew” and traditionally “shared exclusively with family and friends.” (Think someone was perhaps trying to ride on the coattails of small-batch bourbon’s success?)

his beer doesn’t need that kind of false hype. It’s just fine on its own. Rich gold in colour, it has a sweet, honeyed nose that harbours notes of tropical fruit and hints of caramel apples. The body hides its potency very well — to the point that those to whom I served this blind were shocked when they learned of its strength — although the rich, almost oily texture of the beer is a certain indicator. Very gently hoppy, it offers faintly toasty flavour notes of lavender honey, mild toffee and candied peach, ending in a softly warming and slightly cloying finish. Oh, and did I mention that they bottled it in a flip-top magnum?

The overall verdict, then? One hit, several misses and a couple in between. And what’s next for the experimental brewers at the world’s third-largest beer company by volume is anyone’s guess.

 

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