Rob Naylor wants to know what you’re drinking. At a bar, he’ll notice the beer that someone orders. When he’s at the grocery store, and the person in front of him pays for a six-pack, his children always ask, “Daddy, did you make that one?”
Naylor, Director of Product Innovations at Anheuser-Busch, oversees the creation and launch of between 40 and 50 new products a year for the company’s 100+ brands, including Budweiser, Michelob Ultra and Presidente. His team created monster hits like Bud Light Orange, and recently launched Bud Light Seltzer, a spiked fizzy flavored water.
“You see people taking a sip of a product you know people spent hours and hours on,” he says. “And when the customer is having fun with it, that’s the best feeling in the world.”
A New Beer is Born
Sometimes, like with Bud Light Seltzer, an idea for a new product starts with a text message. But every launch requires a cross-team effort between sales, marketing, and the Research Pilot Brewery (RPB), Anheuser-Busch’s product incubator.
Opened in 1981, the microbrewery within Anheuser-Busch’s sprawling 5,000-barrel-a-day St. Louis factory is where brewmasters like Naylor experiment with ingredients, recipes, and techniques. Every new Anheuser-Busch beer is created, tested, and refined in this lab.
At any time, there may be 100 different products at various stages of development. Sometimes the RPB is launching an entirely new brand. Other times, it’s tweaking the packaging to an existing product, such as a 13-pack of Bud.
The Ultimate Taste Test
A team led by Courtney Kaiser, Manager of Process and Product Development at Innovations, creates the recipe. “When you're formulating a recipe, you have to think about what’s the feasibility of it,” she says. “What are the capabilities of the brewery?” Next, 15 to 30 people from marketing and sales taste test the prototypes and give feedback.
The rating system is simple. Tasters take a sip, and then mark one of three options: happy face, neutral face, and a frowny face. Judges also share their opinions on color, aroma, and taste, and rank each beer.
“It’s simple but effective,” Kaiser says. “Some people may like the smell and not the taste, and vice versa. Everyone’s idea of ‘strawberry’ is very different. Is it a candy strawberry? Strawberry ice cream? We’ll move forward with the most popular versions.”
After two or three recipe revisions, the beer is ready for the big time: a customer taste test. “If a consumer is tasting it, you’re down to the final three versions,” Naylor says. “From there, we narrow it down to a smaller group of beers until we get to the winner.”
For most new products, there’s usually more than one variation to invent. For example, Bud Light Seltzer comes in four flavors. “To get to the final product with five or 10 different varieties, it takes a lot of iterations,” says Kaiser.
Scaling Way Up—Fast
One the recipe is finalized, it’s up to Carlos Chaparro, Innovations Acceleration Manager, to make sure that it’s easy for Anheuser-Busch to brew it consistently around the world.
“It’s a collaborative effort with Carlos and his team,” Naylor says. “His role is to taste the beer and know how to scale it up. They make sure the ingredients are there. That it tastes the same, no matter if you brew a small or a large batch.”
The entire process from idea to filling the bottle can take as short as four months, like in the case of Bud Light Seltzer, but averages between six and eight months. “It’s one thing to come up with a great-tasting beer or idea,” says Naylor. “But if it takes two years to do it, it’s a missed opportunity.” For such a large corporation, innovating and moving new products into the market quickly is a challenge. “Our goal is to be the fastest and have the best quality, best-tasting product,” Chaparro says.
Once a month, Naylor’s team brews small batches of Budweiser to test ingredients like the latest hop crop and make sure the beer stays consistent. The RPB batch goes head-to-head with the other Bud breweries at weekly taste panels. “We’ll taste beers from all over the world,” Chaparro says. “We’re tasting 65 beers from our different breweries globally to make sure that Bud always tastes exactly the same, no matter where it’s made.”
Breaking Into Brewing
While Naylor, Kaiser, and Chaparro all have graduate degrees in chemical engineering, they say that you don’t need a science or a culinary background to break into beer. But a can-do attitude is necessary. “A degree doesn’t help you with that mentality,” Chaparro says. “You have to learn from your mistakes. When you fail, you have to get right back up and move onto the next thing. We’re always pushing what we can do from a brewing, flavor, packaging, and execution standpoint. So you have to have an ‘I can do anything mentality.’ I joke that with enough time and money, I can do anything you want me to do.”
What Anheuser-Busch is looking for is troubleshooting expertise, Naylor adds. “Tasting and understanding brewing can be trained,” he says. “A new person coming into the role must be willing to explore and have an open mind.”
Team members in the RPB lab are continually keeping up with advances by reading and learning from colleagues. “People assume we’re sitting around, drinking all day,” Chaparro says. “But there’s so much technology that goes into a successful launch. It’s really cool and exciting to go home for Thanksgiving and see a six-pack of a product you’ve worked on at the store. You come back to family and friends and can finally say, ‘This is what I’ve been working on for the past six months, and I couldn’t tell you.’ It’s all our team’s hard work.”