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ST. LOUIS -- Anheuser-Busch Co.'s massive complex of brick buildings in south St. Louis can produce up to 14.9 million barrels a year. But it isn't the only A-B brewery near Pestalozzi Street.
The Research Pilot Brewery has an annual capacity of 3,300 barrels -- a drop in the beer bottle by comparison with A-B's St. Louis brewery.
But the diminutive size is deceiving. The pilot brewery actually plays a crucial role for Anheuser-Busch, serving as a model operation for the company's 12 domestic and two international breweries and helping develop a steady stream of new products.
"It allows us to evaluate so many beer styles, techniques and ingredients that we could never do on a large scale," said Jane Killebrew-Galeski, senior director of Brewing New Products at A-B's domestic brewing unit. She oversees the pilot brewery and a team of brewmasters who create most of Anheuser-Busch's new products.
Despite its importance, the pilot brewery isn't widely known.
"There are people who have worked [in the main brewery] for 25 years and don't even know it's here," Killebrew-Galeski said.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the pilot brewery, nestled by the main Brewhouse, isn't easy to find. To get to the unmarked entrance, visitors are instructed to follow the railroad tracks next to the Brewhouse.
"We'll be getting a sign soon" said William Allen, the brewmaster who manages the pilot brewery operation.
Though sometimes called "Anheuser-Busch's microbrewery," the pilot facility actually is a sophisticated operation, basically a scaled-down version of Anheuser-Busch's massive breweries. It even has a small packaging line to bottle samples.
In 1981, the nation's largest brewer opened the facility so it could experiment with the brewing process and develop new products on an affordable scale.
The pilot brewery can do a production run as small as nine barrels. By comparison, the main brewery's smallest run is about 3,000 barrels.
At any given time, dozens of test batches are in the brewing process, which includes fermentation. Roughly half involve new product development. Once a prototype beer is deemed ready for test-marketing or national launch, production then moves to one of the company's larger breweries.
Anheuser-Busch also evaluates new raw materials at the pilot brewery, an important task because beer's key ingredients are agricultural products.
When a new hops crop is harvested, the facility brews a special Budweiser using hops from that harvest in order to gauge how the crop influences the beer's flavor.
The remaining work involves testing new equipment before deciding whether to deploy it in the main breweries.
Like other A-B breweries, the pilot brewery has a taste panel that samples the beers made there. And to make sure the facility operates at A-B's standards, it produces Budweiser and Bud Light daily to use as benchmarks.
The pilot brewery's benchmark beers also are part of A-B's weekly corporate taste panels, which evaluate Budweiser and Bud Light made by all the company's breweries. This extensive taste-testing allows Anheuser-Busch to achieve consistent taste and quality, regardless of where the beer is brewed.
The pilot brewery's staff size ranges from 15 to 18 people; many are college students on internships or college graduates recently recruited by Anheuser-Busch.
In fact, the young staff ends up changing every 12 to 18 months as a new batch of pilot brewery workers returns to finish their studies or move on to other positions
The high turnover isn't an accident.
The pilot brewery provides a unique opportunity to intimately learn the entire brewing process, Allen said. "The second mission, just as important, if not more, is to train and develop future brewmasters," he said.
Some eventually might end up as senior managers or executives at Anheuser-Busch. Peter Kraemer, senior director of brewing at the domestic brewing unit, spent four summers working there. His boss, John Serbia, vice president of brewing at the domestic brewing unit, was once brewmaster in charge of the pilot brewery.
Working closely with the pilot brewery is the Brewing New Products Group, a team of six experienced brewmasters, focused exclusively on crafting new beers.
Created in 2004, the team has developed products such as raspberry-flavored and caffeinated Tilt and Michelob Celebrate, a beer aged with vanilla beans and staves from oak barrels used to make bourbon.
However, the team doesn't pursue its creative efforts in isolation. It works closely with Anheuser-Busch's marketing department and the many brewmasters in the company's production system.
"We get ideas from a lot of different sources," said Florian Kuplent, one of the team's brewmasters.
This year, the team developed a fall beer for a new seasonal draught program. Though pumpkin was the obvious flavor, the brewmasters brainstormed about the style of beer, the type of spices and how the pumpkin would be introduced into the brewing process.
But even the decision to use pumpkin wasn't clear-cut. Because of distinctive types of pumpkins and different quality of sources, the team brewed the beer with various pumpkins before settling on a crop produced by an Oregon farm.
After experimenting with the mix of spices, the team came up with the recipe for Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale, which A-B rolled out this fall.
Ideas even come from the highest level. Chairman August A. Busch III suggested a beer using blueberries.
"He's fairly involved in the process," Kuplent said.
An idea forces the brewmasters to think creatively about the product itself and solve possible problems in the brewing process.
Which type of blueberries would work best? Which farms could provide the best quality? What style of beer would serve as the basic recipe, such as lager, ale or porter? When should the blueberries be introduced into the brewing process? What kind of flavor would best represent the beer being made? What level of alcohol should it have?
The team came up with two blueberry-flavored beers with distinctive tastes and alcohol content. Blue Horizon is being test-marketed in Boston, while consumers are sampling Wild Blue in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"It's a fun process," Kuplent said. "We see so many things that our customers won't ever see, but we do make sure we bring the best ones to the marketplace."
Depending on the beer style and the complexity of ingredients, a prototype could require 10 to 15 brew runs before getting the right mix.
"It's always about that taste and drinkability, that's what it comes down to," Kuplent said.
Even then, the prototype is carefully evaluated by test panels and senior executives.
"It's a fairly planned process," he said. "It ensures that we get a perfect result every time."
A prototype doesn't advance beyond the pilot brewery without involving the rest of A-B's vast marketing and production organizations.
"In the end, a lot of people are involved in developing brands," Kuplent said.