“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.”

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