By the end of the 19th century and up until Prohibition in the early 20th, Newark, NJ, was one of the most vibrant beer brewing communities in the world. Believe it or not, it was the water. Clean, clear water flowing down from the Watchung Mountains supplied some of the most iconic pre-Prohibition beer brands in the county. There was Krueger, Ballantine, and Pabst—to name a few. Then, in 1951, there was Anheuser-Busch. Now, the imposing red brick building topped with the company’s familiar logo is the only one left.
Behind the Scenes
When I received an invitation for a private tour, I was too curious not to accept it. And unlike the original AB brewery in St. Louis, there are no public tours of the Newark brewery. I’ve flown over and driven by the facility countless times. What does that giant, steaming building look like on the inside?
AB InBev is the largest brewer of beer in the world. Although I’d been told that I would meet with the general manager and brewmaster, I figured that those would be brief encounters. I expected to meet some suits from the marketing department who would deliver an “on-brand” spiel and handle me through the tour. That’s not what happened.
We Step Inside
Once we finally found the right door, we were met by the jeans-and-boots-wearing general manager, Mike Higgins. He is younger than I’d expected and has a friendly, easygoing demeanor. No suits to be seen. So far, so good. We were led through an almost empty cube farm (it was Saturday) to a conference room with a PowerPoint presentation up on the screen and ready to go. Aha! Here comes the pitch! Nope. Just some interesting facts and figures about the Newark brewery and some safety warnings for our tour. Mike did sneak in one slide about the steady decline of injuries at the brewery during his 12-year tenure. (They saw only two in 2017. He was particularly proud of that.)
The pressure was now on us to get through the tour in one piece, so we donned our protective gear and followed Mike to the canning and packaging floor. This part of the tour was exactly what I expected. Cavernous, loud, and dimly lit (for green reasons, as we learned later) the packing area is an array of twisting conveyors rumbling along with cans and boxes. Maneuvering mechanical arms and highways of pipes completed the Jules Verne-esque picture.
In It for the Long Haul
Along the way there is the occasional human or two to tend to this complex machine. They are fewer than you’d expect though: only 210 employees work in this massive complex. We encountered one fellow who was making a few adjustments to the seamer—the device that seals the top on cans (very important!)—who is in his 37th year at the brewery. Mike Higgins told us that is not uncommon. Workers tend to stick around for multiple decades. I hadn’t expected to hear that.
Another multiple-decade employee (22 years) is Patrick Fagan, the brewmaster for the Newark brewery. While his may be the smallest of the 12 AB breweries in the U.S., there’s no shortage of pride here. After all it’s still 1.7 million square feet of brewing and warehouse space with a brewing capacity of about 9 million barrels a year. There’s also family pride. Fagan is a fourth generation brewer from Latrobe, PA. Besides being home to the great Arnold Palmer, Latrobe also has a storied brewing tradition as home to the iconic Rolling Rock brand. And Fagan’s credentials don’t end there: He’s an advanced degree biology major (which comes in handy when you’re brewing 1,100 barrels at a time).
Getting to Know the Place
The brewhouse is immaculate but still has a sense of history. It hasn’t changed much since it was built in 1951. The most curious element is a home-brew rig set up right in the middle of this industrial-sized brewhouse. Brewers are brewers after all and like to have a little fun. (The word is that GM Higgins is using it to perfect his jalapeño beer recipe.) The rig is a little reminder of the humanity behind this ponderous machine. I hadn’t expected that either.
What I had expected was the brewery control room with its array of computer screens displaying data collected by a vast network of sensors. Sensor City, I’d call it. If something doesn’t look right during the brewing process, adjustments can be made instantly, so it’s a rare occurrence for a batch to go wrong. For a home brewer or general beer geek it is mind boggling. However, with all of that technology at their disposal, I did not expect that the last line of quality control to be a tasting room with a soaring view of New York City and Newark International Airport. There we were joined by Certified Cicerone George Dimopoulos, who guided us through our taste-and-talk session. There was no sales pitch here either—just a conversation about using all of your senses to experience beer. Even the sound you hear when a beer is opened tells you something about what’s inside.
As we progressed through our tasting, Fagan and Dimopoulos lead the discussion on food-and-beer pairing strategies. Do you choose a complementary strategy where the beer and dish share common flavors and aroma, or do you select a contrasting pairing in order to reset your palate? As George suggested, Bud Light has a slightly fruity character (when fresh and served at less than ice-cold temperature) that would complement a nice Brie. On the other hand, Stella Artois is crisp and a little earthy which would be a foil to fatty meats—think burgers or sausages—and clear your palate for the next bite. We also tried some of the darker offerings like the slightly smokey Jim Beam Copper Lager and Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, which is almost a dessert in itself.
Our final stop was the public tasting room which, as you might expect, is quite large. A series of rollaway walls gives it a capacity of 300 and they have indeed started using it as an event space. Who knew you could hold an event in an industrial brewery? I didn’t.
The central feature is an enormous, antique, intricately decorated bar that bears the scars of age. Just as in the other 11 Anheuser-Busch breweries, the bar was salvaged from somewhere in St. Louis. This was the perfect setting for the last beer of the tour: the viscous, boozy, bourbon barrel aged Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. It is a contemplative beer.
It was here that I learned that they worry about the same things just about every other brewer worries about. There is the obsession with quality control. You can do all of the lab work you want but it still comes down to the daily 3 p.m. meeting of the tasting panel. They’re concerned with beer service in their retail accounts. Is it fresh? Do the bartenders know how to pour a proper pint? It turns out that brewmaster Fagan and I share the pet peeve of bartenders putting the tap nozzle into the glass and filling until the nozzle is submerged. Please stop!
Finally, I learned that you can have a conversation about beer over any beer, common or rare, simple or complex. Whether it’s three gallons brewed on a kitchen stove or 1,100 barrels in a state-of-the-art facility, if the people are passionate, then it can be an interesting dialog. It can also be fun. Let’s not forget that.