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Thursday, February 8, 2007

SBP #4: "Throw Out The Lifeline"

"... the Franziskaner Mai-Bock at Lüchow's ... the very dark Kulmbacher at the Pabst place in 125th St. in the last days of civilization ... Michelob on warm summer evenings with the crowd singing 'Throw Out the Lifeline' ... Obst's herrings, with Löwenbräu to slack them... Drinking Faust all night in St. Louis in 1904 ... The draft Helles at Krüger's in Philadelphia ... Twenty or thirty Bass ' ale nights ... Five or six hundred Pilsner nights ..."
From H.L. Mencken's "Bilder Aus Schöner Zeit"

After some rumblings (Brandweek reported the story last month), I can confirm that Michelob has returned to its roots. All-malt Michelob is shipping now. The idea at Anheuser-Busch was evidently to return the bottle to the classic "tear-drop" shape that was unique to Michelob. But the bottle was not the only tradition around this beer: Michelob had originally been a draft-only beer, and A-B's finest beer, jealously and fanatically guarded.

Enter the new emphasis on classic brewing techniques at A-B. A-B brewers have always been highly trained, very skilled professionals. But with the success of the craft segment, they are getting more freedom to flex their abilities; Marketing, in the form of A-B's directorate of new ideas, has realized that there's money to be made in flavor. And while this has led to such bizarre experiments as the new fruity Mich Ultra and Spykes, it has also led to the wholly acceptable Michelob Porter and Hefeweizen.

So when the marketing boys said let's go back to the traditional Michelob bottle, the brewing boys said, let's go back to the traditional Michelob: all-malt. "This is a step upwards in malt character," said A-B brewer Nathaniel Davis, when I talked to him Tuesday morning. "There’s also a slight beef-up in hops. If someone loved Michelob last month, they’ll love it now. It’s not a change you’d call dramatic. It’s a fairly subtle shift."

How's it taste? The thing that caught my attention first was how it looked. The foam looked much better than any other mainstream American lager I'd seen in quite a while: thicker, more mousse-like, and long-lasting. (Nathaniel confirmed that they'd noted the same thing.) There's a mild but brisk hops aroma, a surprisingly citrusy scent for a Euro-hop: that's the Alsatian Strisselspalt that A-B buys up, almost the entire crop. And the beer itself is deliciously clean and yeah, malty, more in a Bohemian pils style than a German.

I could easily see sessioning with this at 5.0%. Is it the equal of, say, Pilsner Urquell or Augustiner helles? No, it's probably not even the equal of 1890s Michelob, to be honest. But few things are. What it is, is a nice lager beer that beautifully fits my profile of a session beer.

Ready for a shock? They took Michelob Light all-malt too, and Michelob Amber Bock. That makes Mich Light the biggest-selling all-malt light beer around, and makes Amber Bock something I am probably going to try with lunch to satisfy my curiosity. A-B is bringing the whole Michelob line -- with the obvious, mutant exception of Ultra and its spawn -- solidly into the arena pioneered by the Michelob specialties we've been seeing the past few years.

What does all this portend? Well, I'm sure there's going to be plenty of hand-wringing and portents of doom from the craft beer protectionists. A-B is merely looking to gut the craft beer industry and leave it a smoking wreck, after all... As if they could. They took a serious shot at that back in the 1990s, rolled out the big ad guns and the power of their massive monolithic distribution system. didn't work. That's because the most solid demand for craft beers comes from the bottom up, from people who are, generally, more interested in what the beer tastes like than in what being seen drinking it projects to other people. They aren't swayed by spin. Well, not as much.

I see this as the latest sign that craft beer's tide is rising faster and stronger than anything can slack it, and A-B is taking the shift in consumer mood seriously enough that they are re-tooling one of their major marques to meet it. Because despite what Nathaniel said about this being subtle, going all-malt is a not-so-subtle sign of admission of the superior quality of all-malt beers...which says what about corn/rice beers? I think we're seeing what may be the first major move towards the Gallo-ization of Anheuser-Busch.

In the meantime? I can't wait for this stuff to come out in sixtels. I'm going to have a deck party as soon as the weather warms up and see if I can fool some geeks into loving an A-B beer. Consider yourself warned...and somebody bring me my willibecker, I gotta oil up my tonsils...

Throw out the lifeline across the dark wave;
There is a brother whom someone should save;
Somebody’s brother! Oh, who then will dare
To throw out the lifeline, his peril to share?

(Refrain:)Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline!
Someone is drifting away;
Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline!
Someone is sinking today.


Anonymous said...

Wowza. The new porter and hefeweizen were easily the best big-guy craft beers since the Velvet Stout era of the early 90s. So how does one tell the maltier Michelob from the ricier Michelob on the shelves?

Loren said...

Can the return of all-malt Stroh's be far behind?

Hope so.

And the Strisselspalt is apparent in the new Mich? Nice...


Steven said...

Hmm, I was swayed to sample the Michelob variety pack just because Lew thought some of the brews were okay. The Hefeweizen and Pale Ale (yet another) were the best of the lot; the Märzen being pretty thin, and the Porter being harsh.

I don't think I'll turn away from Franziskaner or Schneider Weiß anytime soon (or Capital or Sprecher), but I'll have to give the new Mich a try just so I can load my opinion -- maybe even the Amber Bock again.

Lew Bryson said...

Andy -- the new Michelob has a new bottle and label, and says "A classic all-malt lager" on the neck ring.

Loren -- Stroh on your sleeve, man.

Steven -- It's definitely worth a try. But I didn't have the Amber Bock with lunch; got sushi instead of the planned pork enchiladas, and went with ginger ale. Maybe tonight.

GenX at 40 said...

Hey, Lew. Have you some sort of manifesto on what you call session beer? You can't be a blogger with a cause without a manifesto or two to hand out, you know. My beer blog contest right now might be able to cross reference your rule as one thing I want to know is folk's preference for an unending keg of that refreshment rather than relaxation. Quite happy to thereby add to the call for milds, ordinary bitters and other low alcohol brews.

Alan of A Good Beer Blog

Anonymous said...

Really simple to tell the difference...New Mich is in the new teardrop bottle. Old Mich is in the old slope shoulder bottle. Same goes for Amber Bock. New bottle, new beer. Cheers!

Lew Bryson said...

Alan --

Closest thing I've got to a manifesto:

Spread it all over the world...but it's a work in progress!

Steven said...

I'd just like to add a thought to Lew's essay, based on: "...the Franziskaner Mai-Bock at Lüchow's..."

Man, hurt me. Just the knowledge that Franzi made a Maibock at one time is enough to make one crazy.

Back to your regularly scheduled session talk...

Red Rooster said...

Fantastic. It is moves like this that would actually get me to purchase AB products again. I have never been an AB hater. I have toured th brewery in St. Louis, and one has to be impressed with what they see. I was a loyal Bud/Mic drinker in my early 20's before I got into craft beer, so even to this day, I have a lot of respect for AB.

Anonymous said...


All malt Stroh' you got me drooling!!


Anonymous said...

When I read A-B went to all malt and more hops I tried to buy Michelob Lager. I can't find it in Syracuse NY. Many store managers pointed out they carried Mich Light, Select, Selected Light, Classic Dark, Alternative Dark, SomeKindaBock,RandomBeerStyleName etc.
When pressed some said they had "never seen" "regular" Michelob. I can't recall it in stores for... years... , months?...

It used to be the top of their line.

Lew Bryson said...

When pressed some said they had "never seen" "regular" Michelob. I can't recall it in stores for... years... , months?...

It used to be the top of their line.

Sad, ain't it? They had something special there, and in a relentless drive to the bottom, they ruined it. It's encouraging that they're trying to bring it back.

It should be out by the beginning of March, and I would think, you being so close to B-ville, that you should be able to find someone that carries it. Good luck with that.

Anonymous said...

At least now when I go to visit my mom & dad I won't have to bring beer with me - Michelob is all he drinks! lol