These are happy days for people who like to drink good beer (i.e., happy days for people who like to be happy). While overall U.S. beer sales were down 1.3 percent last year, American suds-suckers had the good sense to drink 13 percent more craft beer than we did in 2010*.
*An outfit called the Brewers Association defines craft breweries as those which produce fewer than 6 million barrels a year, with further restrictions regarding ownership percentages and whatnot. To put it in perspective, the largest craft brewer by this yardstick is Samuel Adams, which could more than double its sales volume and still qualify. We'll stick with this definition for now, while realizing that "craft" doesn't necessarily have to mean anything more concrete than "obscene," "organic," or "business casual" do.
But despite the gains made by the good stuff, American brewing is still overwhelmingly a Big Yellow racket, with Anheuser-Busch controlling just under 50 percent of the domestic beer market; Bud Light is America's favorite beer by a double-wide margin, and regular Bud is in second place. But the biggest boys are well aware that the growth is coming from the top of the quality ladder, which is why A-B has just introduced a new line called Budweiser Project 12, which aims to replicate honest-to-goodness craft-quality beer.
Maybe we've all been burned by too many Buds to expect much anymore, but at least this time they're trying to make their own good beer rather than gobbling up another Goose Island or trying to trick us with more Shock Top and Lime-a-Rita nonsense.
The Project 12 program began with each of A-B's dozen regional brewmasters submitting a recipe, six of which were tested before three winners were chosen for public consumption. The entrants were named by their home ZIP code, which is one part clever and two parts annoying for those us not looking to memorize the most efficient way to mail a letter to Williamsburg, Virginia; it would have made more sense to just name them after their hometowns or state birds or anything other than a random-seeming string of numbers, right? But that's no big deal. They sent me a bunch of bottles to try, and this is what I thought of them.
63118, from Bud HQ in St. Louis, is a 6.0% ABV golden pilsner based on the same Hallertau and Tettmang hops employed in the original 19th century Budweiser. It seems clear that the mission statement for this one was "Be like Bud, except don't suck." It turns out to be a respectable example of the style. It comes across as a fuller, creamier Budweiser, though it's still a bit too fruity for my taste. The slightly bitter finish isn't ideal, but at least it tastes intentional, unlike the typical wet-paper Bud tail.
91406, from Los Angeles, is a 6.0% amber lager built with two-row and caramel malt and finished on beechwood chips. I don't tend to favor reds, which can come across as dirty and dry, but this wasn't bad at all, with caramel and sweet orange followed by a legitimately hoppy finish.
23185, from Williamsburg, Virginia, is a 5.5% light amber lager aged on bourbon staves and vanilla beans. I expected this to be overly ambitious and full of ham-fisted cupcake flavors, but the wood and vanilla are much more subtle than I'd feared, and once I talked myself out of my prejudices against both Budweiser and flavored beers, I had to admit that I'm quite fond of the 23185.
Early indications are that Project 12 prices will be the ShockTop zone—somewhere between standard Bud/Bud Light and a real craft beer—and if that's the case, I could see 23185 becoming the first Anheuser-Busch product I ever look forward to buying.