The Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group Beers Before My Time
Part 2: Red Wolf
Right around the same time AB came out with the Elk Mountain beers, the beers I discussed in my last post, they also released a new amber lager called Red Wolf.
The origin of this beer is what I consider a classic AB moment, at least the way I heard the story. Back in late 1994 or early 1995, someone at AB caught wind that Miller would be releasing a beer called Red Dog, and this caused quite a ruckus. Executives at AB always paid a lot of attention to what Miller was doing, what kind of beers they were releasing, and then tried to find ways to release beers specifically to compete with those new Miller beers. Miller was AB’s top competition at the time, and really was the only brewer standing in the way of AB reaching that magic 100 million barrel mark and becoming 50% of the US beer market. Some examples of the beers AB developed to compete with Miller included the Michelob Golden Draft beer, which was specifically targeted at Miller Genuine Draft (both “MGD”, get it?), and all the “bottled” draft beers (read: “unpasteurized and sterile/ aseptically packaged”) that came out after Miller started focusing an their “draft” beer in a can/bottle. These brands were called “Strategic” brands or “Competitive” brands, and it was usually the way AB approached innovation, which, for someone like me, who was trying to be creative, kind of sucked. The competition between these two companies was fierce at times. Another fuel addition to the fire was that Red Dog was marketed as being brewed by the “Plank Road Brewery” – this kind of subterfuge was something that AB railed against back in the day, which kind of surprised me when they started coming out with their own stealth “breweries” about the time I was leaving. Thank goodness I didn’t leave to go to Miller, as anyone who announced they were leaving AB for Miller was quickly escorted off the premises by security and not allowed back on site.
So in the case of Red Wolf, the way the story goes, is that some executive level people found out Miller was going to release a new beer called Red Dog. And mistakenly, they assumed Red Dog would be a red beer. This was at the time where ambers and reds were taking off with microbrews, so the logic made sense, but was absolutely wrong. Once that assumption had been made, the mission then became to beat Miller to it by coming out with their own red beer, the beer that became “Red Wolf”, a name that was a direct shot at the name “Red Dog.” At the time, I heard that this was the fastest new beer rollout in AB’s history, it was on the market in weeks, or maybe 1-2 months after the concept was developed. I can’t imagine what these AB folks thought when they found out Miller’s Red Dog Beer was a standard American Lager! And I remember in subsequent taste panels, many folks at AB suspected it had been formulated to taste like Budweiser.
Looking at my recipe spreadsheet that just has the basics of these brands, AB characterized Red Wolf as an American Red Lager, a style that didn’t exist prior to its release, unless one counts Carlsberg’s Elephant Red, which wasn’t really an “American” Lager. Grains in Red Wolf included 2-Row Malt, 6-Row Malt, grits and rice. For the hop bill, it just says “lots” which means a lot of varieties, not that it was brewed with a large quantity of hops. This was standard AB practice for their American lagers: 6-10+ hop varieties could be used in any single brand, and the recipes could change frequently, which was why no one wanted to publicize the hops in Red Wolf. It was 5.5% abv, 15 IBUs and 15 °L in color. I remember the first time I tasted Red Wolf, it was in the Brewmaster’s taste panel at AB’s Ft. Collins Brewery, and I thought it was godawful sweet. But in later tastes it was more balanced with a crisper finish.
When I got to the Specialty Brewing Group in 1995, Red Wolf had been out for a few months and there were some big marketing pushes behind it. This beer had more merchandise created for it than any other brand in the Specialty Brewing Group portfolio. It was a very heavily marketed beer, I still have my Red Wolf jacket and Red Wolf gym bag at home. The beer itself appealed to (some) craft beer drinkers, and also appealed to the slightly more adventurous of the American Lager fan base. It was the best selling release from the Specialty Brewing Group for a while (soon after Michelob Amber Bock was released though, it overtook Red Wolf). But for a while, Red Wolf was very hot, and there was serious talk of doing some brand extensions on it-beers like Black Wolf, Brown Wolf, White Wolf and Gold Wolf were discussed as potential extensions of the Red Wolf family. But the expansion never came to fruition, primarily because of the development of the Michelob Specialty line, which I will discuss in a future post.