Quick: which Columbus-based brewery has been operating the longest?
Hint: It’s the same one that employs 500 of your friends and neighbors.
That should narrow it down a bit, but if you’re still wondering … it’s Anheuser-Busch.
The massive facility that regularly swaddles the North end of the city in the aroma of mashed grains and floral hops is officially 50 years old. It’s the fifth-largest brewery in the A-B family, cranking out nine million barrels of beer, across a spectrum of 21 brands, every year. That productivity represents a capacity of 90 percent, which is fairly intense in the brewing business.
It’s fair to say that, as a beer city, we’ve shifted quite a bit since the first bottle rolled out of their doors.
Long before Stone gave Columbus a good sniff—subsequently referring their friends at BrewDog to the area—Anheuser-Busch fell in love with Columbus, and opened their fifth brewery in 1968. It sits on an impressive 168-acre parcel that is technically in Worthington, but situated to use Columbus utilities, chiefly water. In fact, the Columbus brewery annually contends with The Ohio State University as the top water consumer municipally.
Of course, the vast majority of the water used by A-B gets packaged as beer, and since most of that beer is consumed regionally, you could argue that the water eventually ends up where it started.
Even so, A-B tries to reduce consumption where they can.
“We take a lot of pride in maximizing the efficiency of our water usage,” General Manager Josh Zabeck said as he explained the operations of the brewery. It’s not just about reducing expenses, but also being good stewards of the environment, and community.
Brewmaster Natalie Johnson expands on the stewardship aspect of the business as it relates to working with their partners down the supply chain. Every batch of beer is the culmination of years of preparation. She has been involved with helping their barley producers develop seeds, which affect batches of beer that won’t be brewed for another year or two. Her responsibility is to make sure every batch of beer produced in Columbus meets the high standards the company expects world wide.
“Consistency is critical,” she said. “We are always testing and tasting, at every stage of the process.”
And that’s not just in the brewery. Every batch of malt is scrutinized, every order of hops analyzed. Every batch of water is meticulously adjusted to ensure that the beer will be exactly what everyone expects. By the time the grain is mashed, everybody knows what needs to be done to achieve the goal of perfection.
Don’t take that as arrogance; we’re talking about perfection within the parameters of producing Budweiser, or Bud Light, or Michelob, or Rolling Rock … the list goes on. Each product has its own set of benchmarks, established over decades, so the brewmasters have to be on their toes.
Craft brewers will sometimes lament when they become victims of their own success—that moment when you’ve created a product people expect you to deliver over and over again. If you think Great Lakes, Columbus Brewing Company, or Sam Adams have boxed themselves into a bit of a corner with their flagship products, imagine the responsibility a 39 year-old brewmaster has before her at a brewery that has been cranking out the same beer for half a century. Everything going into that beer is subject to change without notice, but she’s got to wrangle the science to deliver the same product that this brewery has been known for for five decades.
Zabeck acknowledge that the brewery hasn’t engaged the community quite the way craft brewers have. Partially due to the brewery being built at a time when that sort of thing just didn’t happen, but also because the brewery is operating just short of maximum capacity. That’s a 24/7 proposition that simply doesn’t leave a lot of time for outreach. Even so, that’s changing. A-B is looking at opening the brewery to the public, and hosting events in the near future. They actually had an open house on July 21st.
As for craft beer, Zabeck and Johnson have a lot of respect for their tiny competitors.
“We all have a passion for beer,” Zabeck said. A-B has invested in craft beer, establishing partnerships with several craft breweries. The most notable is Chicago’s Goose Island. A lot of craft beer purists view these “partnerships” with suspicion, but Zabeck insists that A-B simply provides resources, offering Goose Island’s legendary barrel-aging program as an example. It’s a valid argument, as most of the aforementioned purists will happily collect Goose Island’s “Bourbon County” series.
Zabeck and Johnson also share a passion for the community, because they are part of it, and the brewery they work for–along with the thousands of people who have worked there in the last five decades–has helped shape that community for 50 years.