|Suds Grapples With The Giant
by Richard "Suds" Vang
Great Lakes Brewing News, (East Amherst, NY) 1997, 2:5
Presented by the Upstate Chunk & Paradigm Company. For photos accompanying this article, go here.
"The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman."
Shakespeare, King Lear, III, iv
I really didn't know what to think when Bill Metzger asked me if I'd like to represent GLBN on an Anheuser-Busch sponsored trip to the Elk Mountain Hop Farm in Idaho. As a microbrew lover and reader of this brewspaper, what would you think? Sure it was an all-expenses paid press junket to a place I'd never been, and it was focused around one of my favorite things: hop farming. It was sure to be an outstanding adventure. Still, there was that nagging feeling that the whole thing was put on by A-B. I mean, this is THE enemy. And there was the still more ominous feeling that I'd be forced to drink Budweiser for three days.
In the context of my own personal history, in which I've been trying to educate the brainwashed masses about real beer for the past fourteen years, this junket represented the possibility of the end for me -- I myself was now to be shipped off for re-education, into the very heart of darkness itself.
From the beginning there was every indication that this was to be a first-class trip, because I was flown to Idaho, well, first-class. I have always thought that I cannot be bought, but one thing's for sure, A-B really knows how to throw a party. Score one for Mr. Busch.
We were put up at the Coeur d'Alene Resort Hotel, a world-class establishment on the shores of Lake CDA. It was a beautiful location, and since I had come a day early due to travel distance, I was treated to an extra day at the resort. Upon arrival, I found my room to have been upgraded. I was now located on the 16th floor, overlooking the lake. Score another one for Augie Busch.
The activities schedule had me slated to go fly-fishing on our first afternoon, but that was changed to a charter boat on the lake. We loaded about seven of us onto a pontoon boat, grabbed an extra 12-pack and headed out. About five minutes into the ride, our fishing guide realized we had no licenses. "Licenses?! We don't need no steenking licenses!" we all shouted in unison. So we were off, just to cruise the lake and to take in some local sights and lore.
It wasn't long before, fueled by sun, wind, and Bud in a can, that the conversation turned to writing, religion, baseball and folk art-but never to beer. I think we were all a little afraid to discuss the matter at hand. A classic case of 'don't bite the hands that feeds you.'
We eventually motored into Squaw Bay, one of those campgrounds you only see in B-class slasher movies. Bill Owens, of American Brewer, very generously purchased all of our fishing licenses, and we headed back out. None of us caught a god damn thing, but it wasn't Bill's fault.
I once wrote something to the effect that A-B must put an aggressive chemical into their beers because bar-room pugilists always seemed to be drinking Bud, and it is the only American beer U.S. troops are assured of obtaining wherever stationed around the globe. Our philosophical fishing trip quelled those notions however, for the camaraderie and the time spent we spent together were excellent. And the experience was linked to an A-B product: a subtle but effective brainwashing technique. Score another one for Mr. Busch.
Later that evening we were treated to an excellent reception and buffet featuring fresh buffalo and beers from the A-B Specialty Brewing Group, the folks behind this whole thing. The A-BSBG mission statement reads:
The Specialty Brewing Group began in 1994 by assembling some of the most independent-minded and creative brewmasters and beer enthusiasts within Anheuser-Busch and the industry. The result is a team of dedicated individuals who are committed to developing and brewing hand-crafted beers with a firm commitment to the traditional Anheuser-Busch standards of uncompromising quality.
I will say in defense of these folks that they brew good beer. The "American Originals" line, contains Black & Tan (a little too thin for me), Faust (have fun with that one), and American Hop Ale (everyone's favorite, including mine). These beers and the line of "Michelob Specialty" Ales and Lagers (Amber Bock, Golden Pilsener, Hefeweizen, Honey Lager, Pale Ale and Porter) are generally regionally-marketed, which is a good/bad thing. (More about this and the "paradox of quality" later.)
Bill Volmer, Ph.D., A-B's corporate historian, then gave us an overview of the history of hops, some of which I agreed with. I must confess that I was a little miffed about the Central Leatherstocking Region, at one time the largest producer of hops in the world, not being given more emphasis. But it was a fine evening nonetheless. Score another one for "Three Sticks."
The next day we started out with a few background lectures on marketing and the Elk Mountain Hop Farm, after which we boarded a bus headed for Bonners Ferry, about 10 miles from the Canadian border. On the trip I sat next to Steve Michalak, and we chatted about the business of brewing A-B beers. Steve-as opposed to his partner Mitch Steele-came to brewing after first becoming a chemist for A-B. And therein lies the paradox of quality to which I referred earlier.
Steve explained what to me seemed to be the strategy and thoughts behind the SBG. Their goal is to have such a grasp of the ingredients that go into Budweiser that the consumer is assured of getting a Bud that tastes the same in China as it does in Cooperstown. They have such strict quality (read: chemical) control over their ingredients, recipes, and brewing techniques that I'm sure this goal has been achieved. But there's the problem: it's too much the same.
Adolphus Busch had used the techniques of pasteurization, railways, and industrial refrigeration to crush his distinctive, regional opponents. The water and ingredients of specific regions characterize the beers made there, and this was lost through his expansion. Now, with an efficiency reminiscent of the Inquisition or the SS, they have come to dominate the global market by producing a beer of such conformity that it almost makes you sick. (Well . . .) In addition to their non-descript core brands, A-B is finally trying to produce hand-crafted beers (read: regionally-specific), which is the good part. The bad thing about it is that they are breaking back into those same regional markets by producing specialty beers with "drinkability," which means they are not as full-bodied and authentic as tradition dictates.
This paradox brought me to a couple of notions: 1) a greater respect for A-B as an efficient organization; and 2) a greater fear of them in regards to having the resources to once again influence a generation of beer drinkers. I guess, as in almost all great religions, A-B must have their conflicting points of dogma too.
As we rolled into our indoctrination area for lunch, I found the rumors of the night before to be true, for there was Augie Busch in the flesh. Handsome, tan, and articulate, August Busch III has an aura about him that is as awe-inspiring as the mountainous beauty of his hop farm. He greeted us each cordially, gave us all a hat, and proceeded to pump us full of ribs, chicken, and a keg of American Hop Ale. Jokingly nervous talk amongst the writers, suggesting snipers in the surrounding hills, and my memory of the stories of the Old Man of the Mountain, the mystical leader of the medieval Muslim cult of the Assassins, gave me an ominous feeling of paranoia.
Mr. Busch then opened the floor for an impromptu press conference. For the second time that day I was treated to the unwavering doctrine of Anheuser-Busch. The intensity which I felt coming from Steve Michalak's discourse on the way up had a source, and that source was now standing in front of me. Let there be no mistake about it: Augie Busch IS the company. His knowledge of marketing, economics, and brewing, coupled with his personal intensity, instills unquestionable obedience among his followers (er, I mean, employees). I must admit it took every ounce of will power I had just to keep from putting on my new hat.
And then he disappeared. Weird.
We then proceeded to see the various operations of the farm, led by Brad Studer, a locally-grown mountain of a man who runs the show. Having studied the "old ways" of hop farming in 19th century upstate New York, I was fascinated by the sheer volume of the cones and by the organization required to pull the harvest off.
The Elk Mountain Hop Farm is impressive: 1800 acres of Hallertau, Saaz, and Tettnang hops, strung out on a trellis system 20 feet high. At the height of the harvest, A-B employs nearly 300 full-time workers, mostly migrant Mexicans. They are everywhere, of both sexes and of various ages. (Some of them should have paper routes instead of sweeping out the cleaning sheds, but hey, you have to make a profit somehow.) They live in a hotel style apartment complex reminiscent of Jimmie Clark's "Hop City" on the outskirts of Cooperstown almost a century ago.
In a nutshell, the hops are cut down using combines, or with workers on top of a bin-truck using machetes. The trucks are then taken to a cleaning shed where the vines are hoisted into the air and run vertically through a thin threshing-type of corridor, where the cones are literally beat off the vines by cylinders of rotating brushes or fingers. By conveyor the cones then make their way to a drying kiln the size of a football field.
For me the drying kilns are the most impressive, as I have spent some time studying the architecture of the old family farm hop kilns here in Otsego County, most of which are barely 400 square feet in surface area. The intense aroma, moisture and heat (generated by several gas furnaces the size of jet engines) almost knock you out. It wasn't long before my camera lens was clouded over, and I was sweating from the humidity.
The hops are then baled in much the same way they were before, and the bales are still hand-sewn shut, each bale weighing 200 pounds per. They are then cold-shipped all over the world and are used solely as aromatic hops for A-B's core brands.
After filling us up with beer, our hosts then presented us all with Elk Mountain buck knives and let us loose in the fields to gather our own cones. Standing alone in the middle of a field of vines has a very strong spiritual quality. You are surrounded by life in a jungle-like atmosphere, intoxicated by the rich aroma, full sunlight and a symmetrical pattern of vines so perfect you'd swear it was set by aliens. No wonder the hop harvest of the old days was such a joyous social occasion. Score one for us both.
Exhausted, thirsty, and famished from our excursion, our hosts then took us to Roy's Place, probably the most scenic tavern in all of America. It is situated right on the Canadian border between the Kootenai River, majestic mountains of the valley, and green fields of hops. We enjoyed a "snack" catered by the local casino, more beer, and more time to converse. I have a list of favorite bars around the country, and I can tell you that Roy's Place quickly soared to the top of the list. Score another one for A-B.
I befriended a local, elderly gentleman named Bob who told me of the sturgeon in the river, hunting in the mountains, and what a good neighbor A-B had been to the community. He had only left the valley once, during the war, and had eventually helped A-B to build their farm. One of the best things about my conversation with Bob was that he was sporting some rotten teeth, and in a Blake-like epiphany I noticed he was drinking from a coffee cup which sported a picture of an old man, also with rotten teeth.
Once again we boarded the bus for the long trip back to CDA. The bus, which had a couple of questionable moments on the way up, once again aroused my suspicions as we had brake trouble coming down out of the mountains. I could see the headlines: "45 beer writers killed by Anheuser-Busch." (Except there would have been no one left to write them. That's one way of getting rid of your critics.) But needless to say, we made it back, despite the brakes and the endless stream of bad jokes emanating from the back of the bus.
Upon our return to the Resort, we were once again treated to an excellent buffet, but, since our bellies were already bulging from having eaten three times that day already, no one had the capacity to even look at the food for about an hour. Still, after about four more American Hop Ales, we forced ourselves to eat again.
The next day we were presented with several technical sessions, some of which were like reading a book of Dueteronomy. But they were informative nonetheless, and after a short break the company which preaches moderation started us on a tasting of 21 beers at 10:30 AM. Despite being so early in the morning, and despite the fact that most of us were leaving that afternoon, it was quite enjoyable. We sampled several of the beers we'd been served the past few days, with the exception that many were brewed with different levels of hops. This gave us a true indication of the importance of hops in the brewing process, and how just the right levels affect the taste and aroma of beer. We were also treated to the first public tasting of the SBG's Maple Porter, to be marketed in the northeastern U.S. I'm not much for maple porter, especially when it has lots of MAPLE! It could be a little less sweet, but I'll let you judge it for yourselves when it makes its appearance in your local stores.
So I must say that all in all, it was a nice trip-a once-in-a-lifetime trip really. But despite all the money they spent on me, despite all the great beer and food, despite the trip to Elk Mountain, despite meeting Augie Busch, despite drinking at Roy's Place, and despite introducing me to Northern Idaho, I still don't agree with Anheuser-Busch's tactics, and I still won't buy their products. Score one for me.
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