Anheuser-Busch opening doors to Columbus brewery

Written by on July 11, 2017 in Beer, Events - 4 Comments

Anheuser-Busch offers public tours at many of their breweries across the country, but Columbus hasn’t been one of them for many years — until this Saturday, when the Budweiser brewery will open its doors to the public for a special event.

Even if you’re not a fan of their beer, anyone interested in the brewing process should enjoy opportunity to explore the massive production brewery for the first and possibly only time.

The event will feature A-B beers, live music, food trucks and an appearance from the world-famous Clydesdales. The event is free to attend and all ages are allowed. Tickets for brewery tours are sold out, but attendance to the event is still welcome.

The event will take place at the Columbus Anheuser-Busch brewery at 700 Schrock Road on Saturday, July 15 from 10am-6pm.

Contributor Bill Babbitt got a private tour of the brewery last year. His recount is below.

It’s been many years since I graduated from Whetstone High School and headed north to Case Western Reserve University as a naïve 17 year-old. It didn’t take long, however, to adjust to college life and discover beer. A small bar across the street from my fraternity house provided my first ‘legal’ beer when I turned 18. That beer was a Budweiser. Of course, in those days it was a ‘three-two”. If you are too young to know what that is, it refers to 3.2% ABV which is what you were allowed to drink until you were 21. It didn’t hurt that Budweiser was pretty much the official beer for my fraternity, so many bottles and many kegs of Budweiser were consumed.

I returned to my home town of Columbus four years after my discovery of Budweiser, with my B.S. Engineering degree in hand. I went on to spend more than forty years doing product and process development for a local Fortune 500 company. In that sense, I was prepared for the brewery visit. I have been around production operations, automation, warehousing, and the like for years. And I had done my homework on the Columbus brewery in terms of size, production rate, mix of goods and so on. But in the end, I still marveled what I saw during the tour.

First, is the enormity of their operations. The brewery began brewing in 1968 with an annual output of 1.7 million barrels of beer. Nearly 50 years and four expansions later, they are one of the nation’s largest breweries, with an output of 10 million barrels each year. A barrel of beer is 31 gallons, and a gallon of beer is almost 11 cans or bottles of beer. That means that this single brewery produces over three billion servings of beer each year. When you understand that the Columbus brewery only serves Ohio, and parts of West Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky, that has to mean that Ohioans love their Budweiser!

Budweiser is, and always will be, the flagship beer of Anheuser-Busch. It is after all, promoted as the King of Beers by the folks at A-B. Introduced in 1876, Budweiser was America’s first national brand, and it remains essentially unchanged some 140 years later; same recipe, same yeast, same fundamental brewing process. Bud Light, introduced in 1982, may have surpassed its big brother to become the #1 selling brand in America, but Budweiser remains the King. The family of beers produced by A-B is huge and continues to grow. Twenty-three of those brands are produced locally at the Columbus brewery, but Bud Light, Budweiser, Michelob Ultra, Natural Light, and Busch Light are the big hitters comprising more than 80% of their total production.

I had the great good fortune of getting a complete tour of the Columbus brewery accompanied by the plant’s General Manager, Jackie Hamel and the head brewer, Tyler Hunter. In addition to being brewing experts and very gracious hosts, both are fellow engineers, which made me feel very much at home. The plant itself is a study in logistics. Each day, eight rail cars of grain are unloaded. This amounts to two million pounds of barley, rice, and corn daily. Barley is the backbone of Budweiser (and most beers). It is “malted” at one of their facilities in Idaho or Minnesota. Malting is a process whereby the grain just begins to germinate, allowing the malted barley to provide the sugar for fermentation. The rice is added to the grain bill in smaller quantities to provide a lighter feel and a crispness that is part of the appeal of American Lagers such as Budweiser.

While managing grain shipments of more than 700 million pounds per year is a major challenge, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. The brewery uses 800 million gallons of water each year, plus nine different types of hops, billions of cans, lids, bottles, caps and labels; not to mention the kegs, cartons, and other packaging items. Worried about the massive amount of waste that must leave this plant every year to landfills? Well don’t. The plant recycles a stellar 99.8% of their waste. The largest single item is, of course, the spent grain. It goes to area farms as feed for livestock. The beechwood chips and yeast are sold, reprocessed, and repurposed as well. The brewery has a Bio Energy Renewable System that processes the 500 million gallons of residual water annually. A byproduct of this process is the production of methane that is then used in their boilers, thus reducing the need to purchase additional natural gas. The bottles, cans, and packaging remnants are all recycled locally. Even with this incredible success rate, Jackie, Tyler, and their team continue to strive for even more reductions.

The first stop on the tour was to view the brew kettles where the malted barley is boiled to capture the sugars for fermentation. The brewery averages about 20 brews each day, with each kettle yielding 900 barrels. The net stop on the tour, the primary fermentation room, is one that took my breath away. I have toured many, many craft breweries, and very typically they might have a handful of 30-barrel fermentation tanks. I stared in wonder at these A-B fermenters holding 4500 barrels each (that’s one and a half million servings of beer). The fermenters seem to be as big around as a house and are so tall as to rise up out of sight into the darkness of the fermentation room ceiling. After a week or so in the fermentation tanks, the young beer is transferred into the lagering tanks. Lagering in German means ‘to rest’ and the beer will mellow in these tanks over a bed of beechwood chips for three weeks undergoing a secondary fermentation that produces a natural carbonation in the beer. Each of their 318 lagering tanks holds 1200 barrels of beer. As you gaze down the aisle separating the rows of tanks, they appear to go on for city blocks.

While the first part of the tour; the mashing, the fermentation, and the lagering, was mind-blowing due to the sheer magnitude, the second part was every bit as impressive, due to the speed, precision, and automation in the downline processes. Once the brewing process itself is complete, the beer moves to the packaging area of the plant. This consists of bottles, cans, and kegs. Each of the bottling lines fills 1200 bottles/minute, while each of the canning lines is even faster; filling 2000 cans/minute! The conveyor speeds on the canning lines are literally so fast, as to be a blur. I was fortunate, at least, when one of the bottling lines was stopped briefly, so I could actually see each of the stations as the bottles are filled and packaged. The cans and bottles are purged with carbon dioxide before filling to rid the containers of oxygen which can degrade the beer over time. The carbon dioxide used for this operation was previously captured from the fermentation process, thus avoiding unnecessary cost, waste, and pollution.

All of the filling, labeling, and packaging is done using automation, but the best was yet to come. The warehousing is totally “hands-free” due to the use of AGV’s, HDS, and ATL’s. What’s that you say? Well, the finished cases of beer are automatically stacked and stretch-wrapped. Then, the AGV, Automated Guided Vehicle, picks up the palletized products and slowing moves them to the HDS, High Density Storage facility. One million cases of beer reside here at any one time awaiting shipment. When the truck arrives to carry the beer to the distributor, the ATL, Automatic Truck Loader, completes the job, automatically, of course.

The third, and final, part of the tour was a stop in the Tasting Room to understand the Quality Control Systems that are used every day to maintain the quality and consistency of the beer. You have to understand that A-B has 12 breweries in the U.S. making Budweiser, and six more in Canada. How do you manage to make every Budweiser from every plant, every shift, every day, every month, every year, taste exactly like Budweiser? Jackie will tell you, “it’s both science and sensory”. From the science side, a world class lab is testing and monitoring the beer production at every step of the process; from the unloading of the grain all the way to the finished bottle of beer. According to Tyler, “every ounce of every beer is tracked and analyzed, and that includes every ingredient; all the raw materials”. And while this ability to track and monitor every step in the process is absolutely critical to the final quality, that’s only half of the quality process. Every afternoon at 3:00, the Tasting Panel gathers in the Tasting Room surrounded by samples from the day’s production. This panel of tasters, all certified by a robust statistical process, taste and discuss samples of the water used to brew the beer, samples of the wort (the sweet liquid that exits the mash tun), samples of the beer after primary fermentation, samples of the beer after lagering, samples of the beer prior to bottling, and finally, samples of the pasteurized beer from the finished bottle.

As if that’s not enough, every week, each of the 18 North American plants send samples of the finished beer to company Headquarters at the St. Louis brewery. There, another panel of expert tasters evaluate and compare the beer from each plant for quality and consistency. And each month, St. Louis will send the Columbus Brewery samples from the other Budweiser plants for them to sample and compare. This keeps every plant, and every tasting panel, uniformly calibrated and able to produce every single Budweiser to taste exactly the same all day, every day, all across North America. While the science behind the production of the beer is critical, the final, and most important test is in the taste buds of these Tasting Panels. With the screening and training that they undergo, they can sometimes find minor defects that even the best scientific instrumentation cannot detect. And as Tyler says, “with American lagers like Budweiser, you don’t have an overload of hops to hide defects. Because these beers are light and easy drinking, any little defect will show up.”

Just five years, ago there were only a handful of small craft brewers in central Ohio. By the end of this year, there will be close to 40. With that kind of growth, there is quite naturally a lot of excitement and publicity. I doubt that a week goes by without an article about a new local brewery or craft beer event. Because of that, we tend to lose sight of the history and contributions of our friends at the Anheuser-Busch brewery that have been a fixture here in Columbus for nearly 50 years. They provide 500 jobs locally, have a $1,000,000,000 impact on the economy of Ohio, and locally brew Budweiser, Bud Light and 21 other brands of fine beers to the same quality standards day in and day out, year in and year out for the good folks of Ohio.

photo courtesy Anheuser-Busch

About the Author

Guest post

4 Comments on "Anheuser-Busch opening doors to Columbus brewery"

  1. Jackie June 30, 2018 at 2:44 PM · Reply

    Can you tour the columbus plant and if so what are the hours

  2. Ron Mullins July 17, 2018 at 9:19 PM · Reply

    Are tickets available for tours on July 19.

  3. Rebecca Miller December 21, 2018 at 10:55 AM · Reply

    My husband absolutely loves the Budweiser Freedom Reserve, he has rationed what he bought over the summer. We are located south of Columbus is there anywhere the Freedon Reserve is still available, he likes the copper lager but he says Freedom Reserve is the best beer he has ever tasted

Trackbacks for this post

  1. Honey Brown beer’s No. 1 market is Cleveland, Ohio. Who knew?

Leave a Comment