“Watergate:” Craft Brewers Say No Scandal at Bud

As a former Anheuser-Busch brewer, Mitch Steele is perfectly ready to admit the truth: Anheuser Busch InBev (ABI) waters down its beer.

Last week, a lawsuit made headlines for its claims that the global beer giants systematically watered down some of its products with the intent of misleading consumers about the alcohol content printed on its labels.

Steele, who brewed for Anheuser-Busch from 1992-2006 and is currently the Brewmaster at San Diego’s Stone Brewing Company said that ABI waters down its beer before being bottled as part of a process called high-gravity brewing – a method that’s common at large, volume-driven brewery businesses.

“It’s very normal for this to happen,” he said. “There are two reasons for it. First, it allows you to get your ABV totally dialed in with the specifications that are set for the beer. Second, it gives you more capacity in the brewery.”

Steele said that Anheuser-Busch employed this method of brewing throughout his 14 year stint with the company.

But the lawsuit, which was filed on February 22, claims that ABI knowingly added extra water to create a finished product with lower alcohol content than displayed on its packaging. That’s where Steele, and others in the craft brewing community who spoke with Brewbound.com, disagree.

“They know exactly what that alcohol is when beer goes through the pipeline,” he said. “The potential ramifications and the fines are so huge that I can’t see a scenario where that would happen.”

He’s not the only craft brewer who thinks the claims are off base, either.

“Those guys are the most technically proficient brewers in the world,” said Chris Lohring, founder of Boston-based Notch Brewing. “All of the tests I’ve seen, since this news broke, have been spot on.”

At the request of National Public Radio, some Anheuser-Busch products were tested by White Labs, a San Diego-based laboratory and manufacturer of brewing yeast . Results showed that the beers’ alcohol content was labeled correctly – an outcome that craft brewers predicated.

Still, it’s interesting that craft brewers are, in some ways, defending ABI’s methods. For years, smaller brewers have marketed their products as never being “watered down.” Look no further than the country’s largest craft brewer, Boston Beer Company (BBC), who in 2006 released a commercial that addressed the issue head on.

“Boston Lager tastes rich, complex; it’s not watered down,” BBC Brewmaster Bob Cannon said in the video.

So why, all of a sudden, are craft brewers hesitant to use the media feeding frenzy as an opportunity to spout off?

Mitch Steele would rather let the beer speak for itself.

“Craft beers are more flavorful than an American lager,” he said. “That is the most logical statement I can make right there and I don’t need anything else.”

But Steele’s boss and Stone Brewing founder, Greg Koch, had a much snarkier attitude towards the allegations that Bud had extra water.

“Are you suggesting that it was possible to confuse the two,” Koch said.

Koch, who has decried ‘fizzy yellow beer’ for years, said he’s not paying much attention to the reports.

“I am no more or no less interested in fizzy yellow beer because of this,” he said.

Ray Daniels, founder of the the beer serving certification ‘Cicerone Program,’ offered up the opinion that, even if the lawsuit is found to be misleading, it may indicate some of the cultural change accompanying the growth of craft beer.

“I do think it is interesting that this suit even has any credibility with the media and consumers,” he said. “I believe that 15 to 20 years ago, this assertion would have been rejected outright by public and most media. And in the 1990s, it was craft brewers who weren’t quite trusted by consumers and the media. Today, the shoe seems very much to be on the other foot.”

  • Ashton Lewis

    It’s interesting to me that Mitch’s quotes were distorted by a media source that knows about beer. I don’t see where Mitch used the phrase “water down” in his quotes. He stated that high gravity brewing was practiced by AB for the 14 years he worked for the company. This is so damn silly; beer is roughly 90% water most and craft breweries add almost all of the water in the brewhouse. Big brewers normally use high gravity brewing for the reasons Mitch states. At the end of the day lager with 5% ABV contains the same volume of water whether the wort was fermented and bottled as is, or if the wort was high gravity and later diluted to 5% ABV. What is the difference?

    There is a pretty smart reason for craft brewers not to make a big stink about this because guess what, most brewers who filter add some water during filtration in the form of DE or Perlite slurry. Brewers who push their beer lines with water also end up adding, or potentially adding, some water during the process. Some craft brewers use hop slurries in the cellar and add some water at that step. And some craft brewers use HGB because it is a smart way of managing cellar capacity. OMG how awful!

    There is a reason why craft breweries are more and more interested in water de-aeration … some water makes its way into beer after the brewhouse. As Peter Tosh once sang, “when you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones”.

    • jester312

      Ashton, you should post this on the bloomberg site great explanation for different brewing processes . Those whana -be beer snobs should read this.

  • Mitch Steele

    I take exception with the tone of this article, particularly the tease where BrewBound stated that I’m “perfectly ready to admit the truth: Anheuser Busch InBev (ABI) waters down its beer).” The author of this article makes it sound as though I’m saying that ABI is deliberately watering down their beer in order to pull the wool over customers’ eyes, which has never been the case in my experience with AB. I wasn’t revealing some unspoken truth and, by sharing ABI’s high-gravity brewing process with readers, I was attempting to convey that this is a brewing industry standard process, which provides for increased controls, efficiency and consistency. Though not clearly or adequately conveyed in the article above, this is my stance on this non-issue.

    • http://twitter.com/BrewboundFurn Chris Furnari

      Mitch -

      I’m sorry you dislike my lede and my writing style with this piece. I never meant to suggest that you believe ABI deliberately waters down its beer with the intent of misleading consumers. In fact, I went out of my way to convey the fact that the high-gravity brewing process – which we discussed earlier today – is a commonly accepted industry practice amongst large brewers, specifically where I wrote the following:

      Steele, who brewed for Anheuser-Busch from 1992-2006 and is currently the Brewmaster at San Diego’s Stone Brewing Company said that ABI waters down its beer before being bottled as part of a process called high-gravity brewing – a method that’s common at large, volume-driven brewery businesses.

      “It’s very normal for this to happen,” he said. “There are two reasons for it. First, it allows you to get your ABV totally dialed in with the specifications that are set for the beer. Second, it gives you more capacity in the brewery.”

      Steele said that Anheuser-Busch employed this method of brewing throughout his 14 year stint with the company.

      But the lawsuit, which was filed on February 22, claims that ABI knowingly added extra water to create a finished product with lower alcohol content than displayed on its packaging. That’s where Steele, and others in the craft brewing community who spoke with Brewbound.com, disagree.

      “They know exactly what that alcohol is when beer goes through the pipeline,” he said. “The potential ramifications and the fines are so huge that I can’t see a scenario where that would happen.”