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Inside the AB-InBev pilot brewery

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Over the last few years, I’ve heard some really intriguing—and sometimes unbelievable—stories about what exactly happens inside the research and development pilot brewery at AB-InBev’s St. Louis Brewery. Today, I finally got a glimpse behind the curtain when I toured the company’s Research Pilot Brewery (RPB), a nine-story, 10-barrel brewhouse that’s used to test new ingredients, make experimental tweaks to core brands and—the reason I really wanted to check it out—brew completely non-brand beers that almost never see the light of day. This is where the Shock Top line was born, but it’s also a place where roughly 90-percent of the 650 different beers brewed each year (since 1981) are bottled, sampled and destroyed. The reason? Research. A team of 15 employees spend a two-year tenure here at the facility. It’s part training grounds for future full-scale brewery employees, and part solution to an ever present question posed by the company’s brewmasters, yeast experts, marketing staff and beyond: Can we do that? From what I saw, the answer is “yes.” Will you ever taste it? The chances are unlikely.

From conversations today—as well as a few anecdotes I’ve heard from past brewers—the RPB has produced carrot beers, horchata malt beverages (based on the Mexican rice beverage), bacon beers, barleywines, as well as a peppermint stout, ginger snap ale and apple pie beer (those last three were part of last year’s seasonal experiments). They’ve used bourbon staves, wine staves and played around with dry-hopping. When Rebecca Reid, current brewmaster of the experimental facility, was asked whether they’d ever venture into sour ales, her answer was essentially, “We’re learning about sour beers.” When it comes to future experiments, everyone shares a similar optimism: “Anything is possible.”

So, what can you expect from future products out of AB-InBev? I have no idea. But, I do know that pushing the company envelope is a core mission at the RPB. When touring the lagering and fermenting floors of the brewery, I saw name tags on tanks that read “Orval Holiday,” “Orval Fire,” “Project Wow,” “Project Golden Ticket,” and “Project Campfire,” (a new spin on their s’mores beer from earlier this year?).

I didn’t get to taste those, but I did taste a pretty fantastic apricot saison, as well as a notable straight-up saison. Both would get good scores in a blind tasting.

And then I tasted Bretzel, a pretzel beer. I’ll say this about the intriguing concoction: If this beer were poured at GABF next month, it would cause a run on the booth. Put simply, it was amazing. Perfectly pretzel-like in the aroma, and packed with chocolate malts and a touch of brine in the finish. If this is the product of talented brewers with seemingly unlimited access to funds, ingredients and brewing space, then, well, let your imagination run wild. Theirs certainly is.

There’s more to tell about the RPB—it’s truly a fascinating sub-structure of the brand that’s core to the entire global operation. The interesting, whimsical one-offs they produce that never see the light of day are just the start.

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