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Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, and elsewhere

by Markian Gooley

For about nine dollars, one can get two bottles each of six Anheuser-Busch brews: its standard Michelob, Michelob Honey Lager, Pale Ale, Maple Brown Ale, Winter Brew Spiced Ale, and Amber Bock. I keep hoping that one of the major brewers in the U.S. will produce a drinkable beer at a good price, and although I've told myself that I won't be snookered into buying another sixpack of foul- tasting fake microbrew, I bought a Sampler Pack so that I'd have six types of beer to trash -- uh, to try -- on the cheap.

Michelob (regular)

This is very pale, like ginger ale cut by half with water. It smells of Saaz hops, as do all pseudo-Pilseners, with a little malt and a "sweet," almost syrupy scent that I can't place. Even the first sip of cold beer is foul from start to finish with tastes of various adjuncts (starchy or sugary ingredients used instead of barley malt), and these jumble every other taste. A sip of warmer Michelob first seems almost flavorless, as if it's numbing the tongue; then it has a sugary sweetness with a little light malt. This fades, and is joined by that metallic taste, almost that of blood but more bitter, that one sometimes gets in corn cereals. Alcohol and hops creep in belatedly, and that nasty adjunct taste prevails to the end.

Why do people drink this?

Michelob Honey Lager

Honey is sometimes cheaper than malt, and it's one of the few adjuncts that, if used in moderation, needn't ruin a beer. It's entirely fermentable -- yeast makes it into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and residual flavor -- and adds no sweetness at all.

Honey Lager is light amber and smells of Saaz, malt, and some spiciness, perhaps from other hops and perhaps from the honey. It kicks up a thick head which settles quickly. It is powerfully sweet. The beer is almost like a soft drink, though with a faint hoppy bitterness: malt and honey sweetness and flavor eventually give way to an aftertaste that's dull and acrid, yet still sweet -- think of saccharin. I can't taste the alcohol or the usual adjunct nastiness apart from something that reminds me of bubble gum; I doubt that this is from a lager yeast working at too high a temperature, so maybe it's from the honey. I wouldn't be surprised if A.-B. adds more honey after killing the yeast.

I couldn't finish this beer. I suspect that someone at A.-B. got a bonus for preventing customer complaints about a honey beer not being sweet. Later in this review you'll see this "give the people what they expect" approach again.

Michelob Pale Ale

Here the adjunct is wheat -- at least one that's tasty and time-honored -- and Pale Ale is supposedly dry-hopped: the brewer adds hops to the beer after fermentation stops and lets them stay for a while, letting the alcohol extract some flavor.

Pale Ale smells like an ale; despite the wheat in it, it's not brewed using the traditional wheat-beer yeast that adds that distinctive spicy taste and aroma. I can just detect hops. This ale is rich amber, with a moderate head that decays slowly. An initial sip gives a shocking first impression: This product of A.-B. might be drinkable!

A sip of Pale Ale starts with excessive sweetness beaten swiftly into submission by bittering hops and some wheaten acridness. The bitterness lingers -- this is very bitter for a mass-market beer. The hop flavor and aroma that I'd expect from dry-hopping simply aren't there until this beer approaches room temperature, and by then the sweetness and harshness are also more prominent, and the tastes are unbalanced.

Pale Ale is drinkable when cool, which is amazing for anything called Michelob. It's as good as the worse regional mini-brews and would be a fair deal at less than $3.50 the sixpack.

Michelob Maple Brown Ale

This is made "with maple syrup and natural maple flavors" -- perhaps in equal amounts, the flavors being several hundred times stronger than the syrup. Like honey, maple syrup is completely fermentable, and when diluted to about a quarter of its usual strength makes a very dry mead with a subtle, faintly gluey flavor and a powerful kick. Does A.-B. expect people to know such things? Guess.

Even straight from the refrigerator, this beer smells overwhelmingly of maple flavoring (presumably natural); I can detect nothing else. It's light brown, with a moderate initial head that settles slowly. The maple flavor overwhelms every other flavor except for some sweetness and a bitter aftertaste. At room temperature, the sweetness includes some malt taste, and there's some hop bitterness and something nasty (as from adjuncts) in the aftertaste; the alcohol also grows apparent. The maple flavoring still prevails, but it lacks that slight gluey note that real maple syrup always seems to have.

Nobody will complain to A.-B. that Maple Brown Ale doesn't taste and smell like maple, but somebody should complain that it's vile.

Michelob Winter Brew Spiced Ale

A spiced ale should be spicy! (Do you see a pattern here?)

Winter Brew has a vast head of foam, tinted off-white by the beer's clear brown color. The clearness is disconcerting: it's clearer than the glass of a new brown beer bottle and has an air of sterility. The scent of spice overwhelms everything else, but I can't place the spices. Cloves and nutmeg and cinnamon might contribute to the smell, and perhaps allspice, but what I think of is that "potpourri refresher" stuff sold as "the scent of the holidays" or such: nothing that one can pin down, but sort of a festive pumpkin-pie and spice-cookies melange with all the charm of a department store's plastic mannequins.

This beer is intensely sweet even when ice cold, and the spice flavor matches the smell. The sweetness and spiciness eventually give way to a bitter aftertaste unlike that of nutmeg in a heavily spiced beer served too cold. At room temperature the sweetness is more than cloying, the spice still overwhelms, and only a touch of alcohol becomes apparent. There could be adjuncts aplenty here, but I can't tell.

Try adding a packetful of "instant hot apple cider" mix and a shot of vodka to ice-cold soda water instead. It couldn't be much worse.

Michelob Amber Bock

I vaguely recall having reviewed and panned this -- or was it a similar A.-B. beer? I'm not going to check, because I'm lazy, and also I don't want to bias this review. Even if I've reviewed Amber Bock already, A.-B. might have changed the recipe.

Amber Bock is not amber but clear brown. It has almost no head, and it smells a bit of malt but not of hops (but then bocks are not supposed to be hoppy). It is sweet, but the sweetness is a bit thin and hollow, almost as if some of it is provided by sugar added after the yeast has been killed, rather than in the natural course of things by dextrins, unfermentable fragments of starch. There isn't much hop flavor or bitterness, again true to style, and the aftertaste is malty with some burnt-malt bitterness. I can detect the alcohol, but there's not enough for the style, and not enough to balance the sweetness. A sip of room- temperature Amber Bock starts with that slightly hollow sweetness and some darker malt, then a touch of hops and alcohol joining in, then a little hop bitterness trailing off to the residual sweetness and burnt malt -- and something vaguely nasty, as of adjuncts.

Amber Bock isn't grossly unpleasant, and it's roughly true to style. Like Pale Ale, it wouldn't be a bad buy at around $3.50 the sixpack, but I wouldn't seek it out.


This Michelob Winter Sampler Pack is not worth buying unless you are a masochist, enjoy bad sweet beers, or can get it on sale and need beer to bait traps for slugs. The Michelob Pale Ale and Michelob Amber Bock are just drinkable and might be worth getting separately if they are cheap enough; the other varieties are not. Anheuser-Busch appears to have tailored the other three "specialty beers" to what some market researcher has found that people associate with "maple" and "spiced" and "honey," perpetuating ignorance by brewing perversions of beer.

Bah, humbug, Mr. Busch.

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