About five months early, DRAFT recently snuck a taste of Budweiser American Ale, the darker, more craftlike Bud offering that’ll hit your corner bar this fall. Billed by brewmaster Eric Beck to be a “more robust” Budweiser, that’s exactly what American Ale is: The beer pours amber with a hefty beige head, and a nose with hints of pine and citrus. Dry-Cascade-hopped, there’s noticeable bitterness, but with an obvious malt backbone--a balance achieved by more than a year of test batches. The mouthfeel is smooth, with Budweiser’s signature quick, crisp finish. Packaged in a curvier, classier bottle than your usual Bud, this 30-IBU, 5.3%-ABV brew seems an earnest, heartier version of the brewery’s famous lager, ideal for craft newbies and beer geeks willing to see this big brewer in a new light. Watch for American Ale on shelves beginning October 6.Now, I have no great interest in this beer. Bud has something like 8 IBUs and tastes like old dishwater. This version may have stats that seem shocking by macro-lager standards, but I doubt it could compete with Oregon pales and ambers, which are saturated with flavor, rather than "hints" of pine and citrus. (I could be wrong--dry-hopping is a sure bet for radically improving a beer.)
But whether it's good or not, this is a development to watch. Remember those horrible gimmicks beer companies rolled out every few years--dry beer, ice beer, cold-filtered beer, and on and on. Yet still, what the breweries offered were beers that had less flavor in each iteration. It was as if they were trying to come as close as possible to alcoholic spring water as possible. (Zima was a zenith of sorts, a chemically alcoholic beverage that contained no flavor you couldn't find in a soda.) The effect was to slowly destroy beer culture across America.
Craft beer may be winning one battle, then. Circa 1980, when the nascent craft movement was getting started, the macro-breweries had managed to restrict and control variability effectively enough that the war was being waged on intangible "brand" elements. After all, no one could taste the difference between Hamm's or Pabst. But now, the big companies have lost that control. The cat's out of the bag, and Americans know that "beer" doesn't refer solely to canned dishwater.
Anheuser-Busch may still be making most of the money, but it can no longer control the market. Growth is elsewhere. They may now have to compete on the basis of flavor. Who'dda thunk it?