Exploring the beer brewing process after a Super Bowl corn-troversy

By Joel Penhorwood

It all started with a Super Bowl ad.

Those little 30 to 60 second blips on the screen, usually meant to be funny (sometimes they actually are), had one ad from beer maker Bud Light that touted in a roundabout way the fact that Bud Light is made without corn syrup, which they also pointed out was being used by their competitors.

Corn growers were quick to respond, including the National Corn Growers Association releasing a statement saying the ads were misleading and portrayed corn syrup in a negative light. In recent weeks, a judge has even ordered Anheuser-Busch (the parent company of the Bud Light brand) to stop using the words “corn syrup” in attack ads without more context. It is the result of an ongoing lawsuit by competitor MillerCoors.

The fact is that yes, Bud Light is made without the use of corn syrup, though rice is used in its stead to derive the sugars essential in the beer brewing process. Other beers by Anheuser-Busch include corn syrup in their creation.

Quite a few emotional thoughts, lawsuits and changes in drinking habits were made in the days and weeks following the incident, with continued ad use still catching grief. Many of those beverages in question are produced on the north side of Columbus at the Anheuser-Busch plant just south of 270.

“We bought this land from a local farmer here in Columbus and broke ground in 1966. We opened our doors in 1968. In our first year we were capable of making about 1.8 million barrels of beer. Since that time, we’ve actually doubled our capacity more than twice and today we can make almost 10 million barrels of beer in a calendar year,” said Josh Zabek, senior general manager at the Columbus Brewery of Anheuser-Busch. “We have about 500 full-time employees at work here. In the summer months, we’ll actually scale up and have 600 employees that are here full-time. We’re a 24/7 operation and are brewing beer 365 days a year. We are producing and packaging almost every single day of the year.”

About 20 brands are brewed at the Columbus facility, including hallmark items such as Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Busch, Busch-Light, Natural Light, Landshark, Bud Light Lime, Select 55, and Rolling Rock among others, including non-alcoholic brands.

“We make a pretty wide range of beer, some of which many people don’t know comes out of a brewery right here in Columbus, Ohio,” Zabek said.

With so much production, Zabek said agriculture is essential to their success and they stay well-integrated with their farming community.

“Everybody knows malt is used to make a lot of different beers. We use a lot of rice in our Budweiser and Bud Light, but we also use a lot of corn. Corn grits and corn syrup in Busch and Busch-Light and a lot of other products,” he said. “We’re very happy to be close to a lot of our farmers in the local community and to know that we are dependent on them. We are dependent on all of our farmers in the United States.”

The brewing process brings together those agricultural commodities and puts them to work to create the end product many enjoy. Matt Kaminske is the head brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch in Columbus, and detailed that unique procedure from beginning to end.

“Our process really begins with the grains unloading,” he said. “We’ll bring up to six rail cars per day, five days at least per week for about 500 million pounds that are coming through this facility. Whole grain rice, whole grain barley malt, and we’re also bringing in corn grits. We use different combinations depending on what we are brewing that particular week. We then move that grain into our silos where we house millions of pounds of grain that are used in the brewing process each and every week.

“We also unload dextrose syrup here, that we receive from Cargill in Dayton, Ohio — over 30 million pounds per year of dextrose that we bring into this facility to make our value-brand products,” Kaminske said. “It comes from Ohio farmers. As a company, over 16 million bushels of corn per year go through our facilities.”

From the grains unloading process, the grain eventually enters the brewhouse and is added to a mash cooker, an enormous stainless steel vat, designed to do most of the “heavy lifting” in the brewing process.

“From there, we step into the lagering process. That’s where we take the mash we developed in the mash cooker and we’re trying to separate the wort from that stream. Out from that process comes spent grains that is then collected, and is ultimately sold back to local farmers for cattle feed. The wort then goes to the brew kettle and it sets again a lot of different processes in place. That’s where the hops are added, a key process in the profile of a Budweiser versus a Michelob versus an Ultra. The hops help to stabilize the wort and really sets the rest of the processes in place as we go downstream into fermentation,” Kaminske said.

The total process can take almost 10 hours to get from grain coming into the cooker until its ready with yeast and cooled back down for fermentation. The brewhouse is also not a cool place to work, with air temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“From the brew kettle process, then we set the stage for fermentation. That is where we cool the brew back down, we add yeast, and we really kick off that fermentation process,” he said. “Depending on the different recipes we have will dictate how long those brews then sit in the fermentation process.”

Brews will sit in the large, upright, fermenting vessels for about a week or so before they move onto the second stage of the aging process.

“Primary fermentation will move onto secondary fermentation in the beech wood aging tanks, our chip tanks as we call them. That’s where we add beech wood chips. That’s really what helps make the beer clean, crisp, refreshing, and sets it in profile for Bud and Bud Light, or our other brands as we dictate the recipes,” Kaminske said.

The beer is then removed from the chip tanks, filtered several times, and dialed into the final product before it heads into packaging. All packaging happens on site in the facility with three can lines, three bottle lines, and one draft line working around the clock.

“The can line is capable of producing at 2,100 cans per minute and has an upward capacity of producing almost 40,000 cases in an eight hour period. At max capacity, this brewery can produce almost a half a million cases of beer in a 24-hour period,” Zabek said. “It’s a very fast and complex operation. We are shipping about 230 full trailers of beer every single day out of this facility.”

The Anheuser-Busch plant highlights a simple fact in agriculture that is sometimes hard to see from field-side — farm products are essential in thriving industries, like that of brewing beer. No matter your thoughts on Bud Light and its controversial ads, the fact is it has started a conversation about ag being used each and everyday, and that is a good thing.

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