Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A field trip to the Anheuser-Busch Merrimack Brewery in which I become the pride of my family

At our Wilson family cookouts, there are two things that can always be counted on: Anheuser-Busch beers and the booming voices of my uncles.

You’d develop a booming voice, too, if you’d grown up in a family of five boys who were separated in age by just seven years. My dad and his four brothers must have felt the need to out-boom each other in order to be heard over the din of pretending to kill one other (a mother-torturing incident involving ketchup, a white t-shirt, a dart, and a little boy sprawled out on the floor) and actually almost killing themselves (metal toboggan runners to the face, a near-drowning in the Saco River, knocked out teeth, bike-riding wipeouts on railroad tracks, hockey pucks to the forehead…the list is a long one).

Five wild boys and their dad, 1965

Brothers and their Bud Light cups 47 years later

So I think the booming is an honest byproduct of that.

As familiar to me as my uncles’ voices—especially in the form of their joyful, unguarded laughter—are the Budweiser, Busch, and Michelob Ultra cans and bottles that are in their hands at every family event. For my Uncle John, it’s Budweiser in bottles; he’ll reputedly walk out of a restaurant that doesn’t serve it. For Uncle Paul it’s Michelob Ultra, and for Uncle Mike it’s Busch.

I admit that I didn’t inherit their affinity for light beer, or their booming voices, either. I’m a craft beer drinker (although not a beer snob) and am actually one of the more soft-spoken members of my family.

That’s why I wasn’t sure what to expect during a Beermaster Tour and food pairing at the Anheuser-Busch Merrimack Brewery in Southern New Hampshire. 


Brian gamely poses at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery

But I was immediately and pleasantly surprised when the tour began with a sample of Shock Top Chocolate Wheat, a beer that I didn’t know was brewed by Anheuser-Busch. We sipped the darkly colored beer, which had notes of vanilla mingled with chocolate, and heard from our tour guide, Chris, about the history of the 162-year-old brewery and the story behind its famous Clydesdales (they were a seriously ballsy gift from August and Adolphus Busch to their father to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition).

Next, we suited up like air traffic controllers in goggles, reflective vests, and headsets that allowed us to hear our tour guide in loud areas of the brewery—we were venturing into a busy factory, after all—and set off.

I think warning yellow is our color

On the tour with Brian and me were three other guests: Rob—sporting a “This Guys Needs A Beer” T-shirt with two cartoon thumbs pointing up at his head—his wife, Jennifer, and their friend, Valerie, all of whom were enthusiastic Budweiser drinkers and brewery tour regulars. In fact, Rob said he had “tears in his eyes” the first time he saw the massive Bud Light finishing tanks where the beer rests before being bottled and pasteurized.

This affable guy got a bunch of beer

I didn’t have tears in my eyes, but I was impressed by the precision and care that goes into ensuring that every single bottle of Budweiser tastes exactly like what my Uncle John expects it to taste like. We even got a peek into the mission-control-like room where wall-to-wall computers measure and calibrate every aspect of the brewing process.

The highlight of the tour was getting to sample Bud Light right from one of the finishing tanks, which Jennifer promised would be “the best beer you’ll ever taste.” Chris tapped the tank and gave us each a glass of the unpasteurized, super-cold beer, which was unbelievably crisp and even thirst-quenching.

Chris taps the Bud Light finishing tank

We toasted each other (Jennifer quickly handed her glass to Chris for a refill) and chatted for a while among the gleaming stainless steel finishing tanks before ending the tour by hearing about the 275,000 cases and 10,000 kegs that were stored in the warehouse.

“I know that sounds like a lot of beer, but that’s not even two days’ supply for the New England area,” Chris said.

Why does that not surprise me?

After doffing our protective gear, we were ushered to the hospitality room, where a bar, a crackling fireplace, couches, tables, and chairs welcomed people for a post-tour beer or two.

Get comfy with a beer in the hospitality room

We were greeted there by Otto Kuhn, the Merrimack brewery’s head brewmaster, a Purdue University-educated chemical engineer with an assertive handshake who’s brewed Budweiser everywhere from Argentina to England to Spain.

“When you make a clean, crisp beer like this, all the mistakes come out,” he said, explaining the meticulousness with which Budweiser is brewed. Therefore mistakes are not an option. For Budweiser, that results in a beer that, above all, is easily drinkable and has no lingering aftertaste. And the recipe is unchanged since the brewery’s founding.

“You have to be true to taste and true to style,” Kuhn said.

That’s not to say they can’t embrace the explosion of food and beer culture
, which is why the Anheuser-Busch Merrimack Brewery recently started offering “Brews & Bites,” which are monthly, themed food- and beer-pairing events.

We got a taste of the Thanksgiving-themed Brews & Bites, which included “Budweiser Biscuits” paired with Budweiser; a lovely pork loin stuffed with raisins, sage, and cloves that was paired with a roasty and caramel-noted Budweiser Black Crown; spicy mashed sweet potatoes spiked with Matilda pale ale and paired with Beck’s Oktoberfest; and rich and decadent pumpkin pie bars paired with Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat.

Stuffed pork loin roast paired with Budweiser Black Crown

The food was great, the beer was great, and together they were even better. Unlike wine dinners which come with an intimidation factor and the fear of somehow getting wine “wrong” (Only fools and losers drink White Zinfandel, you oaf!), beer dinners are so much easier and more accessible. Either you like a beer or you don’t, you taste what you taste, and it’s all totally OK. For me, the clove and shallot flavors in the pork loin really popped after a sip of the clean and pleasantly bitter Budweiser Black Crown, and the Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat echoed the flavors of the pumpkin pie bars beautifully. At a cost of $15 for advance tickets, a Brews & Bites event is definitely an easy, fun, and tasty experience that's worth making the short trek to Merrimack for.

Brian and I lingered around the brewery for a little while after the tour and tasting, visiting the enormous chestnut Clydesdales in their stables and buying a four-pack of the Shock Top Chocolate Wheat beer in the gift shop.

I'm deathly allergic to these steeds, so I booked it out of there pretty quickly

And when I posted a picture on Facebook of me and Brian in the hospitality room, my Auntie Jodi replied with a message from one of the guys I’d been thinking about all day: “Uncle John is proud!”

If You Go:


Free tours are offered at the Merrimack Brewery and include beer samples.

The two-hour long Beermaster Tour is a fun, in-depth, and intimate experience that delves deeper into the brewing process. The cost for Beermaster Tours is $25 for adults 21+ and $10 for kids aged 13-20. Reservations are required; call 603-595-1202 or email merrimackbrewerytour@budweisertours.com.

To learn more about the complimentary and Beermaster Tours, visit BudweiserTours.com and click on the Merrimack, New Hampshire tab.

Check the Merrimack Budweiser Tours Facebook page for information about upcoming events, including monthly Brews & Bites tours, as well as other events such as the annual Ribfest and the Merrrimack Bierfest.

If you make this for Thanksgiving, you'll be very happy

Tour, travel and other expenses provided by  Anheuser-Busch; all opinions are my own.

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