Huddled around a wooden table with a glass top, one person swirls his freshly poured glass of Bud Light, then smells it. A few feet away, another tester swirls it, tilts the glass to look at the webbing, smells it and then tips the pour back to finally have a taste.
The process of tasting beer is by no means an exact science even if the result — making a high-quality brew with the same taste each time — has become a tactical exercise in precision for the nearly 170-year-old brewer Anheuser-Busch.
When tasters gather together each afternoon in St. Louis, and separately in Anheuser-Busch's 17 other North American breweries reviewing their own products, they are looking at more than just the flavor of the beer. Does it coat the glass when swirling it? Is it foamy? Test panelists also are carefully monitoring the smell and whether it gives off an immediate burst of aroma when they tilt the glass.
Each taster has their own style, a process Travis Moore, the head of North America brewing for Anheuser-Busch, equated to each Major League Baseball player's individual routine they go through before stepping into the batter's box.
Greg Suellentrop, Anheuser-Busch's director of brewing and quality, noted that if you watched 10 different people at a tasting, an observer would witness the same number of uniquely different styles — when he participates, he likes to smell the beer a few times before his first sip.
"You have to do what you're comfortable with because as soon as we write our comments and post our scores, as soon as we hit send, ... then brewmasters get to find out what we said about their beer," Suellentrop said. "There's no going back. Everyone's got to do a style that they're comfortable with."
Even during the coronavirus outbreak, Suellentrop said the tasting panels take place every day with proper safety protocols required by health authorities, including social distancing and enhanced personal protective equipment.
Here for the beer
One early December afternoon the testers were trying Bud Light pulled from its tanks in St. Louis during the last five weeks to ensure it was consistent over time. The beers were then rated on a scale of one (nonsalable) to nine (best possible example of the brand). Beers that score below a certain level are deemed unsellable and require some kind of immediate action to fix the problem.
The products are rated on a scale by the panel according to the beer's flavor profile. A Budweiser, for example, is described with attributes such as slightly hoppy, subtle fruity esters, a trace malty and a slight fresh yeasty aroma. The beer also is associated with a medium body profile that has a delicate sweetness, clean bitterness and a crisp, fast finish.
Anheuser-Busch, part of AB InBev, the world's largest brewer, makes sure that all outside distractions that might interfere with the judge's ability to assess the beer are removed. Glassware is cleaned using ultra-filtered water. Air is pumped into the tasting room using a separate air filtration system.
"This room has to be inert," Moore said. "When you're here you have to be focused and not have perfume or some odor from the outside. When you're here in the room, the only thing you smell and taste is the beer."
The checks go beyond the final products, with the company monitoring the beers during each stage of the brewing process. Perched on black counters surrounding the circumference of the tasting room are samples of water used to make the product and various beers taken from as many as five stages of the brewing process, as well as ones pulled from a bottle or can after the item has been packaged.
With dozens of samples at the ready, only two tasters are required to rate these samples, then sign their names to a nearby form indicating they've tried and approved it. Beer bottles or cans behind the partially filled glasses are labeled with information such as the tank number and when the product is expected to reach the market.
"You have to keep practicing. [Tasting is] not a perfect science by any means," said Suellentrop, who has been tasting beers at the company for 31 years. "Even I get humbled, and I'm usually the senior man at most every panel."
He sheepishly recalled tasting a beer brewed at Anheuser-Busch's Fort Collins plant last November that he gave a low score. Everyone else thought it was the best beer that day.
Once the taster is confident in their assessment, they jot down their score on an iPad connected to a keyboard that also includes space for them to add their observations about the beer. After the panelists complete their tasting, the brewmaster, in this case St. Louis, gets an average score with comments that were made.
Pace of innovation
The company's other 17 breweries conduct the same quality checks each day. Over time, the scores are averaged out, creating a ranking that amounts to a de facto competition among all the brewmasters across North America.
"Brewing is a mix of art and science. We're brewing with raw material and ingredients that are agricultural commodities, right, and there are minor variations between growing years, between lots, between field and field," Suellentrop said. "The brewmaster has got to understand those differences and be able to make minor adjustments to make the final product be the same."
As one might expect, sampling beers throughout the brewing process, as well as the barley, rice, hops and water that are used to make them, is crucial to ensuring that what people expect a beer to taste like remains consistent. In St. Louis on an early December afternoon, rice and barley removed directly from railcars sitting on Anheuser-Busch's property are sampled by the brewmaster before a decision is made whether to unload and use them later on.
When Suellentrop joined the company in 1989 as an experimental brewer, the company's portfolio was composed predominately of seven beers. Today, the beer giant, which depends on some of those same signature brews such as Bud Light and Budweiser for much of its brewing volume, has expanded its offerings — some through a series of mergers — to include hundreds of products each designed with a specific consumer preference or drinking occasion.
To verify those kombuchas, seltzers or flavor versions of already popular brews match their intended flavor profile, another testing team gathers in a nearby room around the corner each month to sample finished items sent in from the other 17 North American brewers. The products are rated through a blind taste test with the same scale used to assess those in St. Louis every afternoon.
Every brand in Anheuser-Busch's portfolio is tasted at some point in St. Louis, with high-volume beers such as Bud Light, Budweiser and Michelob Ultra subjected to more frequent checks, and smaller brews like Busch, Busch Light and Natural Light usually scored quarterly by the panel. With so many products to try, the test of North American products can take up to 90 minutes per day.
A large walk-in cooler where the beverages are held until they are checked also stock a few competitors' beers, too, which are used to keep track of their taste profiles and ensure no changes are being made.
Tasters — there are roughly six to 10 present each time on each of their panels — are chosen based on their position at the company and prior experience. (Anheuser-Busch allows less experienced tasters to participate in the sampling, but only to glean insight from more experienced individuals.) Being selected to the panel is no guarantee that someone will remain on it in perpetuity. Each taster is evaluated annually to ensure that their ratings are congruent with others on the panel.
The reach of the testing panels extends far beyond the United States. A third testing team called the Global Budweiser panel convenes the third week of each month in St. Louis to try about 60 of the signature brews sent in from around the globe. It lasts for up to four days.
Suellentrop, who has a degree in chemical engineering, has long gravitated toward Anheuser-Busch's signature brews like Bud Light. He said with so many new products being introduced at such a fast clip, it's been difficult for his palate to keep up with all the different profiles, some of which contrast with his own personal preference in alcohol.
Suellentrop said it's easier for him to detect defects in the company's core brands — Budweiser, Bud Light, Busch Light, Michelob Ultra and Natural Light — that he's been familiar with for decades. But even for an experienced tester like Suellentrop, becoming an expert on a product like its Straw-Ber-Rita strawberry margarita can still be a challenge.
To help familiarize them with the profiles of each product, Suellentrop and other tasters will read the product description and invite people from the innovation team that helped create it to meet with them. More weight also is given to the brewmasters in plants where the products are made when it comes to tasting them because they are more intricately familiar with them on a day-to-day basis.
"The core brands we've had for years, I don't struggle with those, but Straw-Ber-Rita, I'm not going to tell you that I'm the expert on what Straw-Ber-Rita should take like. Learn as you go," Suellentrop said. "The pace of innovation has outpaced our ability to keep up with the profiles."