On February 11, 2015

The beer that men buy

One of several interesting aspects of Budweiser’s schizophrenic 2015 Super Bowl commercial—not the one with the puppy, the other one: the anti-microbrew ad that characterized craft beer drinkers as effete posers while asserting the unfussy superiority of plain old Bud (“proudly a macro beer”)—was its emphasis on Budweiser’s “beechwood-aging” process.

The commercial’s central premise is that beers made for “tasting”—i.e., beers whose stronger, more complicated flavors demand some portion of the consumer’s attention that he might better spend on televised football, nachos, or scantily clad waitresses—are not as good as beers made for “drinking.” In the view of Anheuser-Busch, “tasting” is not so much a natural phenomenon as a finicky, laborious process that involves much sniffing, swirling, spectacle-wearing, and growing of fanciful mustaches: it should be avoided at all costs. Budweiser is not meant to be “dissected” by your pretentious taste buds—it’s meant to be “enjoyed” (via some other unknown process) by rowdy male humans and served by attractive female humans.

Why, then, should we care that Budweiser is “beechwood-aged”? Isn’t that the kind of detail that affected craft beer snobs, geekily interested in the beer itself rather than the convivial social setting to which only macrobrews can provide access, would care about? Isn’t Budweiser “dissecting” its own beer in this portion of the ad? And isn’t it suspicious that Budweiser should emphasize this specific part of its brewing process at the moment of peak trendiness, when oak-aged beers—showy, overpriced microbrews that have matured in oak whiskey barrels—occupy four of the top five spots on BeerAdvocate’s Top 250 list? Is Budweiser trying to vilify craft beer enthusiasts or bring them into the fold—or, in its geriatric bewilderment, both?

If you’ve ever tasted Budweiser (not recommended, least of all by Budweiser itself), you know that it doesn’t have any powerful “woody notes”—or even any subtle ones. Wikipedia observes that Budweiser’s beechwood chips “are boiled in sodium bicarbonate [baking soda] for seven hours for the very purpose of removing any flavor from the wood.” Why add them at all, then? Budweiser’s official website states that beechwood-aging “enhances fermentation, creating a crisper, more sparkling carbonation while imparting smoothness to the characteristic taste of Budweiser.”

The best (real) explanation I could find on the Internet came from a 2007 post on a defunct blog called The Sober Brewer: “The purpose of the chips is to increase surface area on the bottom of the tanks where the chips settle. Suspended yeast in the beer will then settle onto this arrangement of beechwood chips, allowing more yeast cells to be in contact with the beer during aging.” After active fermentation, the yeast cells will “draw in” undesirable flavor compounds like acetaldehyde and diacetyl , thus removing them from the finished product. The beechwood chips increase “the amount of contact” between beer and yeast, speeding up the flavor-removal process.

Budweiser’s “beechwood-aging” isn’t a lie, though the phrase obviously suggests something different from what it is, implanting in the consumer a fantasy of a months-long maturation wherein delicate flavors are imparted, not merely subtracted.

Thanks in large part to craft beer, Budweiser’s sales have dropped from a peak of 50 million barrels in 1988 to 16 million barrels in 2014. Anheuser-Busch has responded to the onslaught in a variety of confused, contradictory ways: by making its own fake, terrible craft beer (Shock Top, Land Shark); by mocking craft beer during the Super Bowl; and by purchasing preexisting craft breweries (like Chicago’s acclaimed Goose Island) and changing very little about them in the hope that no one will notice the new, soulless ownership. The third strategy probably makes the most sense, in that it is the only strategy that does not necessarily involve continuing to produce awful beer.

Indeed, Budweiser’s parent company AB InBev announced on January 23 that it would purchase Elysian Brewing Company, a Seattle-based microbrewery that specializes in inventive pumpkin beers, including one from last year that its brewers additionally flavored with peach and pecan. Nine days later, AB InBev aired its Budweiser Super Bowl ad, which mocked craft beer consumers for sipping ridiculous products like “pumpkin peach ale.” Which is it, guys? (Anheuser-Busch previously released pumpkin beers under its Michelob and Shock Top lines.)

Anheuser-Busch doesn’t have to articulate a consistent stance on the menace and/or potential goldmine that is craft beer; the question is whether the ad “worked” for whichever demographic it was targeting. In this case, there was some understandable attempt to promote macro beer as a tool for the contrarian hipsters of the hipster-backlash movement. Momofuku chef David Chang notably has called for a return to flavorless beer, and maybe AB InBev carries some faint hope that Budweiser will be resurrected as a “normcore” totem.

The primary aim of the commercial, however, was to consolidate Budweiser’s base of conservative males who, without the reassurances of macho-themed TV commercials, might eventually come to think that weak, watery macro beer is actually less “masculine” than high-ABV craft beer. Budweiser’s product is so manifestly terrible that it can only seek to retain its market share by appealing to people who believe that they must continue to drink Bud simply because it’s the beer they’ve always drunk: nothing must ever change.

It’s no accident that virtually every Budweiser ad features an all-white cast—except for the puppies and horses—and takes place on a golden-hued farm (with no beer in sight, just a palpable aura of heartland values). The modern counterparts of the multiracial “Whassup?” guys of the early 2000s have now been relegated to ads for Bud Light, a product that, with no claim to illustrious Midwestern “tradition,” must sell itself on pure, fun-loving wackiness for all, without resorting to the nostalgically exclusionary cultural populism that Republican politicians typically use to sell their own hollow product—politicians who, like Budweiser, are increasingly discombobulated and anxious: they seem to know that in the long run they’re doomed.

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