Q&A with: Anheuser-Busch brewmaster Greg Suellentrop
Many of us have had a quick beer at happy hour to unwind after a hard day at work. But how many of us have such a ritual as part of our jobs?
Greg Suellentrop does. He’s the new brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch’s Merrimack facility, the smallest of the company’s 12 breweries, known not only for its beer but its award-winning gardens and Clydesdale horse paddock. In addition to the core brands of Budweiser, Natural Light, Busch and Michelob, the brewery also makes Anheuser-Busch’s specialty beers, the gluten-free Redbridge, organic Stone Mill, Demon’s Hop Yard IPA (served only on tap in New England), Ray Hill’s American Pilsner and Bare Knuckle Stout (also sold only on tap).
While not exactly relaxing, tasting beer is indeed part of his job, along with maintaining strict quality controls that are more out of a laboratory than a bar.
And that suits Suellentrop just fine, since behind the AB-logoed shirt is a man with a degree in chemical engineering.
The soft-spoken 40-year-old is intelligent, athletic and dedicated to his craft as a brewer, chemist and businessman. Suellentrop appears to have fit into the community like beer in a glass. Arriving in Bedford just five months ago, he is already scouting for which of his three children’s sports teams to coach as well as keeping an eye on the upcoming Rockin’ Rib Fest, one of Merrimack’s biggest festivals.
The Business Review recently sat down with Suellentrop before he began his daily rounds of the brewery.
Q.While brewing certainly takes a lot of chemistry know-how, how did you move from chemical engineering into brewing?
A. I’ve been working for Anheuser-Busch for 18 years. Every brewmaster in our system started the same way — at the bottom.
I worked at just about every job you could work at. I started out at the research pilot brewery in St. Louis, making beer, running tests. From there I went to Tampa, then back to St. Louis, then Williamsburg, then Jacksonville, then back to St. Louis, and then to Merrimack.
Q.Walk me through your day.
A. I’m an early guy. I hit the gym early, then come here. Usually, the first thing I do is review reports of what’s been happening during the past 24 hours in the brewing process.
As a staff, we meet every morning at 8 a.m. and review reports in more detail, what’s going on today and what’s going to happen tomorrow. We go through every step of the process, from the brewhouse to packaging.
I spend a lot of my time in the afternoons walking. I like to walk around a lot and talk to people, see what’s going on, check on things.
I wrap up the day by tasting. We have to taste every tank of beer at every step of the process, including all the water. It’s a fun way to spend the day, but it’s a job. There’s a lot of work.
Q.What’s your beer of choice?
A. Budweiser. Bottle over cans. It used to be Bud Light, but since I’ve been here, it’s been Budweiser.
Q.And what’s the beer you sneak when Anheuser-Busch isn’t looking?
A. Yes. You can go look in my fridge. I usually stock it with just about everything we make. I have Redbridge in there, our gluten-free beer. Stone Mill is our organic beer — I have some of that at my house.
The only one I don’t have is Bare Knuckle. It’s only sold on draft. I need a tapper at home, so I can serve keg beer.
I keep a variety of our products on hand based on what I feel like. I like to have one or two at night.
Q.Many people give Budweiser and other domestic, mass-produced beers a bad wrap. Why are they wrong?
A. They are wrong because, between Bud and Bud Light, 70 million barrels were sold last year, give or take.
You know, Bud and Bud Light are American lagers. American lagers are lighter, for lack of a better word, than European lagers. But those beers are made for what the market demands. Forty million people bought a Bud Light. The sales figures speak for themselves — it’s the No. 1 selling beer in the world, not just the United States.
Q.In what ways are the naysayers right?
A. It really comes down to personal preference. You’re never going to make a product that pleases everybody. That’s why we have other brands that appeal to people looking for import-styles. A Bare Knuckle Stout appeals to a different market than Bud Light.
Q.Because the Merrimack facility is the smallest of Anheuser-Busch’s 12 breweries, is it more agile? Can you switch over production more quickly?
A. It’s not that you can flip over quicker, it’s that you can make smaller batches.
You get a brand that is just coming out on the market and you’re not really sure what it’s going to do, you’re not going to make a lot of it right away. So that gives us an advantage from that point of view.
What’s tricky is trying to manage it all on one bottle line in packaging. Redbridge and Stone Mill are only in bottles. A lot of the specialty beers are only in bottles, and we have only one bottle line, so that can become kind of a constriction.
Q.What initiatives or new projects are you looking at for Merrimack?
A. I’ve been spending a lot of time interviewing. Most of the people that work for me are retiring. They’ve been here since the 1970s. We have a lot of people that opened the doors of this brewery that are walking away this year — about 20 percent.
Our marketing team in St. Louis conceptualizes new products. Then the concept goes to the research brewery there, which makes craft brewing-sized batches. When they finalize the recipe, more often than not, it comes to Merrimack next. We have a couple in the pipeline now that are not on the market yet that we’re working on.
Q.Do you ever grow tired of the smell of yeast?
A. Nope. That smell has never bothered me. Either it’s not there anymore or I just can’t smell it anymore.
Q.What do you do for fun?
A. I work out every day. Really, though, most of my fun is with my family. I have two girls and a boy. We’ve been going skiing a lot. My older daughter does competitive cheerleading, so my wife and I watch her compete. We’re coming up on baseball season, and I’ve always coached my son’s teams. If I’m going to be there, I might as well be involved.