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Review: Budweiser Project 12, 2013

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The debate over what defines craft beer has been a hot topic in recent months. Words like "independent", "quality", "small", and "local" have been parsed and argued over. The debate has made enemies of former industry friends and made some of the most diehard craft beer drinkers turn their backs on their former favorite brews. At times, tensions have run high.

"High on the list of things we'll never do. SELL OUT. That is all," read an Oct. 18 tweet from the account of California's Stone Brewing Company.

That tweet was in reference to the acquisition of Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing by Duvel Moortgat USA. The deal follows the purchase of the Coney Island brand of Shmaltz Brewing Company by Boston Beer Company in August. Boston Beer CEO Jim Koch, recently named a billionaire, told me earlier this year that , "If I try to compete with the big guys, they'll kill me." By any metric, he's become plenty big himself.

All of this serves to confuse the average beer consumer, who has more choices now than ever. The Brewer's Association listed close to 2,400 craft breweries in operation in 2012, with many more in planning stages. That list includes Samuel Adams, but not Chicago's Goose Island Brewery, which was acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev for $38.8 million in 2011. By one definition, Samuel Adams beers are craft and Goose Island's are not, even though Goose Island brewers have told me that the day-to-day operations since the merger haven't changed at all.

That you, the consumer, is expected to keep track of this at home, and may even be looked down upon for choosing some faux-craft beer over a "legitimate" one, seems all kinds of wrong.

With more consumers aware of where their beer is coming from, the big brewers have injected more confusion into the market recently with big-budget brands designed to appear as independent. Third Shift amber lager is a MillerCoors product, but listening to the commercials, you'd think your neighbor was burning the midnight oil to pump this stuff out just for you. Most of craft beer's aims are noble: sustainable local businesses create jobs where we live. Small batches in theory should create a better product (in some cases that's entirely true, in others not so much). This column is essentially written as a support of craft, though I'm conscious of not being an industry cheerleader.

It's with that backdrop that I took on three new "Project 12" beers from Budweiser. On one hand, it's refreshing to see the beers branded as Budweiser and not some two-faced craft interloper. On the other, this is big, bad, Budweiser here. I'm supposed to hate this stuff, right?

Bud's "Project 12" beers were introduced into the market this month. In a nutshell, the company asks the brewmaster at each of its 12 US breweries to come up with a recipe for a new beer. Six of those beers are then chosen for various tasting events around the country. The three winners are packaged and sold in a mixed 12-pack. This year's winners, named for the zip codes at which they were brewed, are:

-- Batch 94534 (Fairfield, Calif.): Brewed with a unique blend of North Pacific hop varieties, including Cascade and Palisade, this bold, hoppy lager is 5.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and offers a distinct taste of the American Northwest.

-- Batch 23185 (Williamsburg, Va.): Aged on a bed of bourbon barrel staves and vanilla beans, this light amber lager indulges the sweet side and features a 5.5 percent ABV.

-- Batch 43229 (Columbus, Ohio): Brewed with chocolate and caramel malts for a rich auburn appearance and finished on Beechwood chips for a crisp, clean taste, this deep amber lager is 6 percent ABV.

I gave you the verbatim descriptions from the press release for a reason. These are all lagers, all brewed with Budweiser's signature yeast. Bud isn't trying to reinvent the wheel with these beers; they're sticking with what they know.

"Those were very deliberate decisions," said Brian Perkins, a VP for the company. "We want to have freedoms within a framework."

Perkins talked a lot about the talent of his brewers. The original recipe for Budweiser hasn't changed since 1876, he said, and given that it never will, he thought offering the chance for consumers to vote on a Budweiser product was a big deal.

"I think for people it was refreshing and interesting that an iconic brand like Budweiser was interested in what they had to say," he said.

There's spin in every pitch -- and believe me the big companies are not the only ones who try to fire up the hype machine -- but i found some refreshingly honest comments in our talk.

"Is this Budweiser trying to do craft beers? No. Absolutely not," said Perkins. "We're very proud of our bigness and what we've built. If you define craft as small and independent that's not what we assert to be."

Kind of nice to hear, actually. Onto the beers. After all that, my expectations were admittedly low for three relatively similar lagers. Perkins warned me about the bitterness of the hoppy, North Pacific style lager ("It will be hard to drink more than one," he said). Bring it on.

The description says the beer pours a deep golden color, but that's not entirely true. Lighter in appearance than my typical India Pale Ale (or even India Pale Lager), the hoppy lager gives off faint citrus in the nose. It's got a nice hop bite to it, crisp in the end albeit not overly bitter. I'll ruin the surprise (These reviews are in reverse order of tasting, by the way, for you light-to-dark zealots) and tell you this was my favorite of the bunch. It's a fine beer, and for IPA drinkers it won't be a problem to drink more than one. It also won't totally satisfy your lust for hops.

Next up was the Beechwood Bock. It poured a dark amber color with a bready aroma. I don't get a ton of chocolate malt flavor like the description says, but rather mostly caramel. It's also not super oaky. To me, this was no more remarkable than a regular Budweiser, but that also isn't a bad thing. It's a drinkable beer.

My least favorite was the vanilla bourbon cask lager. There's some bourbon in the nose of this lighter-colored beer. You get the vanilla up front in the taste, but after a while it falls into the sweetness trap that so many mass-marketed beers do. Regular Budweiser does a good job of not being this sweet. Perkins told me they upped the bourbon flavor in this beer after consumers requested more of it last year, but the sweetness was off-putting without a hop backbone to balance it.

The beers highlight how hard it is to make a good craft beer, but also how hard it is to bring drinkable beer to the masses. I drink black coffee and love double IPAs, but I know I'm not in the majority there. Who will drink these beers?

"There's a certain Budweiser drinker who is just an adorer of Bud and they don't want anything else," said Perkins. "Then there's a drinker who drinks Bud and a whole bunch of different things. That drinker is most excited about this."

Based on these three beers, it seems unlikely that the group Perkins is talking about and the people who are already drinking craft will overlap. Project 12 drinkers will likely already be Bud drinkers, but that's a pretty large group. More variety for them can't be a bad thing.

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