I grew up in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley, a place marked by great food and its two craft beers: Tuckerman and Moat Mountain. When I first moved to Maine, I – still too young to actually drink – didn’t realize that all the beers on the shelf at the gas station I worked at were craft beers. When I embarked on the journey of beer discovery in college, older, wiser friends taught me which ones to drink and which to avoid.
Drink anything local. Avoid Bud Light.
We drank absurdly named IPAs. We looked for IBUs and ABV and mouthfeel. We tried Walgreens’ 50-cent swill just for fun.
Honestly, we drank a lot of liquor, usually preferring mixed drinks to beer or wine. As hard cider – the New Englander’s true local brew – became more popular and easier to get, it was fun to be able to go to a restaurant and not just say “whatever hard cider you’ve got” but to actually pick one off the menu.
Drink anything apple. Avoid Bud Light.
But in southern New Hampshire, there’s a kind of problem with “drink local.” Not a problem with local breweries: New Hampshire has a bunch, although fewer than Maine and Vermont per capita. No, no, the problem is there’s a big local brewery and it makes Bud Light.
Anheuser-Busch opened the compact Merrimack brewery in 1970. It is the smallest of the company’s breweries, primarily serving New England communities within a 300-mile radius.
70% of this plant’s output is Bud Light, which tracks with U.S. drinking habits. As a country, we love Bud Light. Or at least, as our tour guide put it, “it’s always the cheapest thing at the bar.”
Part of that is by design. The company uses a blend of hops and malt, some higher quality and some lower quality, in order to keep costs down. Rice, a fairly unusually ingredient for beer, is used in Budweiser and Bud Light, and the leftover grain is sold back to farms for livestock feed, which helps reduce the cost of the beer. And, of course, scale helps.
Each tank at the plant holds enough beer to keep one person satisfied for over a century. Testers sample each one ten times throughout the brewing process.
“People say ‘How do you get that job? I want that job,'” our tour guide explained. “But it isn’t as fun as it sounds. You can’t eat spicy foods. Your palette is your job, even when you aren’t here.”
The plant offers a complimentary tour. We’ve done it twice, so this time we opted for the $10 Bud Light Experience, a tour that focuses specifically on Bud Light. One of the hallmarks of the tour is that you get to sample Bud Light directly out of the tank. It’s a selling point that Anheuser Busch has pushed at us before.
I had my first Bud Light at the age of 24, when I was in a club in Boston with a friend. I had already had a couple decent drinks so I put a five dollar bill on the bar and told the bartender I didn’t care what I got, here’s five dollars. The bartender poured me a $3 Bud Light and pocketed a $2 tip. Smart man.
Having been warned for years that Bud Light was awful, I stood near a crowded dance floor in a Boston nightclub and prepared for the worst.
Standing in the Merrimack brewery as our tour guide turned on the spigot, I flashed back to that moment, back to my first taste of Bud Light. I’ll tell you what: Bud Light is not the worst beer in the world. I happily drank another that night. I refer to it as my “second drink,” once I’ve had something a little more flavorful I’ll drop down to the second drink, Bud Light. But I hadn’t had anything flavorful yet, so here was a Bud Light, straight from the tank, untainted by any sips of a craft beer or a well-mixed drink.
“The only way you can get it almost this fresh is locally, in a keg,” the tour guide explained. “Our kegs are unpasteurized, so they still have that snap.”
The “snap” is how Anheuser-Busch explains the distinct taste of the rice. I’d heard that explanation before, but until I had the tank-fresh Bud Light, I didn’t get it.
I’m not saying that Bud Light is a religious experience. But I am saying that the taste of it fresh from the brewery is a lot different, a lot more crisp, and a lot more drinkable. As a member of our tour said, “If it always tasted like that, it would be the only thing I drank.”
The tour ends at the Hospitality Room, where you can sample two beers of your choice. It’s a fun opportunity to see what “craft beers” are really part of the Budweiser family, but its also a fun opportunity to try things you might not try otherwise. Bud Light Orange holds up; it tastes like an orange soda somewhat adjacent to, but not necessarily mixed with, a Bud Light. Freedom Reserve, a Budweiser variant with molasses inspired by a beer recipe by George Washington of all people, has a kind of sweetness you don’t usually see in a lager. Bud Light Lime-a-rita is not good, and it was never good, and it will never be good.
The Bud Light tour also includes a commemorative pint glass. We’re running out of space for all of our commemorative pint glasses, but its a nice gift, and it helps justify the $10 price tag. If you are also running out of space for all of your commemorative pint glasses, you can opt for the free tour, but then you don’t get the fresh-from-the-tank Bud Light. The tour guide says its pretty close to fresh-from-the-keg Bud Light, though, and you can sample that in the Hospitality Room.
Or at any independent, locally-owned bar in southern New Hampshire.
The Anheuser-Busch factory image was photographed by Jane023 and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.