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99 Bottles

The debate over what is a craft beer heats up

Budweiser’s “Project 12” beers.

GARY DZEN/GLOBE STAFF

Budweiser’s “Project 12” beers.

The debate over what defines craft beer has been a hot topic in recent months. Words like “independent,” “quality,” “small,” and “local” have been parsed and argued over. The debate has made enemies of former industry friends and made some of the most diehard craft beer drinkers turn their backs on their former favorite brews. At times, tensions have run high.

“High on the list of things we’ll never do. SELL OUT. That is all,” read an Oct. 18 tweet from the account of California’s Stone Brewing Co.

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That tweet was in reference to the acquisition of Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing by Duvel Moortgat USA. The deal follows the purchase of the Coney Island brand of Shmaltz Brewing Co. by Boston Beer Co. in August. Boston Beer CEO Jim Koch told me earlier this year that “If I try to compete with the big guys, they’ll kill me.” By any metric, he’s become plenty big himself.

All of this serves to confuse the average beer consumer, who has more choices now than ever. The Brewer’s Association listed close to 2,400 craft breweries in operation in 2012, with many more in planning stages. That list includes Samuel Adams, but not Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery, which was acquired by Anheuser-Busch
InBev for $38.8 million in 2011. By one definition, Samuel Adams beers are craft and Goose Island’s are not, even though Goose Island brewers have told me that the day-to-day operations since the merger haven’t changed at all.

With more consumers aware of where their beer is coming from, the big brewers have injected more confusion into the market recently with big-budget brands designed to appear as independent. Most of craft beer’s aims are noble: sustainable local businesses create jobs where we live. Small batches in theory should create a better product (in some cases that’s entirely true, in others not so much). This column is essentially written as a support of craft, though I’m conscious of not being an industry cheerleader.

It’s with that backdrop that I took on three new “Project 12” beers from Budweiser. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see the beers branded as Budweiser and not some two-faced craft interloper. On the other, this is big, bad, Budweiser here. I’m supposed to hate this stuff, right?

Bud’s “Project 12” beers were introduced into the market this month. In a nutshell, the company asks the brewmaster at each of its 12 US breweries to come up with a recipe for a new beer. Six of those beers are then chosen for various tasting events around the country. The three winners are packaged and sold in a mixed 12-pack. This year’s winners, named for the zip codes at which they were brewed, are:

Batch 94534 (Fairfield, Calif.): Brewed with a unique blend of North Pacific hop varieties.

Batch 23185 (Williamsburg, Va.): Aged on a bed of bourbon barrel staves and vanilla beans.

Batch 43229 (Columbus, Ohio): Brewed with chocolate and caramel malts for a rich auburn appearance.

These are all lagers, all brewed with Budweiser’s signature yeast. Bud isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with these beers; they’re sticking with what they know.

Onto the beers. After all that, my expectations were admittedly low for three relatively similar lagers. I was warned about the bitterness of the hoppy, North Pacific style lager (”It will be hard to drink more than one,” he said). Bring it on.

The description says the beer pours a deep golden color, but that’s not entirely true. Lighter in appearance than my typical India Pale Ale (or even India Pale Lager), the hoppy lager gives off faint citrus in the nose. It’s got a nice hop bite to it, crisp in the end albeit not overly bitter. I’ll
ruin the surprise and tell you this was my favorite of the bunch. It’s a fine beer, and for IPA drinkers it won’t be a problem to drink more than one. It also won’t totally satisfy your lust for hops.

Next up was the Beechwood Bock from Columbus. It poured a dark amber color with a bready aroma. I don’t get a ton of chocolate malt flavor like the description says, but rather mostly caramel. It’s also not super oaky. To me, this was no more remarkable than a regular Budweiser, but that also isn’t a bad thing. It’s a drinkable beer.

My least favorite was the vanilla bourbon cask lager. There’s some bourbon in the nose of this lighter-colored beer. You get the vanilla up front in the taste, but after a while it falls into the sweetness trap that so many mass-marketed beers do.

Gary Dzen can be reached at gdzen@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeGaryDzen.
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