Bill Anderson remembers when beer was kept in wooden barrels, when a master brewer like himself could adjust the recipe to suit his own personal tastes and when a small cart carried samples of the product to brewery employees throughout the workday.
"The afternoon of St. Patrick's Day," he recalled, "they shut the breweries down and sent everybody home. It was safer that way." That particular day, employees at the breweries would polish off a half gallon of beer "before seven in the morning," he said.
Today, Anderson said, beer is held in stainless steel or glass-lined vats, the formulas are kept consistent from brewery to brewery through precise laboratory testing and employees are no longer permitted to sample the brew on the job.
All formulations at the Stroh's brewery, where Anderson now works, are closely monitored by an array of expensive high-tech equipment. Lab experts establish everything, from how long it should take for a head of foam to collapse after pouring, to how much cling the foam should have on the glass.
"Years ago when you monitored, say, 'clarity,' you just looked at a glass of beer," Anderson said with a laugh. "Now you read meters and computer printouts. We have monitors that calculate everything, and, if anything is wrong, they alert us."
The big breweries, Anderson lamented, have lost the image of a brewery. "Most of them are beer factories now. A lot of them don't look like breweries. The master brewers in some places are called 'brewing managers.' "
While the brewing business today has become extremely scientific, Anderson, 55, insists, "Taste is still the bottom line. All the numbers that come out of the lab may say it's perfect, but if it doesn't taste good, you can't tell the guy down at the tavern: 'Hey, look at the good report card they gave me.' "
The only exceptions to the policy forbidding drinking at the Stroh's brewery in Van Nuys are the twice-weekly morning taste testings over which Anderson presides. On tasting day, Anderson and eight of the brewery's top taste testers gather in a small room outfitted with individual booths so that none are influenced by others' reactions to the beers.
Rated Zero to Nine
They are given about 10 samples, each of which they rate from zero (imperceptible) to nine (extremely perceptible) in 14 different categories. Among them: "hang" (a lingering bitterness or harshness); "tart" (acidic taste of vinegar or lemon); "oxidized" (the flavor of stale beer), "grainy" (the flavor of cooked cereal), "medicinal" (chemical flavor resembling solvent); "sulfur" (skunklike odor of beer exposed to sunlight); and "mouthfeel" (consistency--thin or heavy).
"People in Boston like more foam than people in California. They also prefer a hoppier taste," said Anderson.
In the past, a brew master would make adjustments to regional tastes, as well as to his own. If he liked the beer hoppy, said Anderson, he would put in more hops. "But now, I don't put more hops in because I like it--we adjust it to the public. Market research spends a lot of money on surveys to find the taste that's most pleasing to everyone."
Besides heading up the taste testings, a master brewer must oversee the entire brewing operation--from ordering raw materials through each stage of the monthlong brewing process, until the beer reaches the packaging stage. Master brewers constitute a small fraternity of fewer than 100 in this country, and Anderson is friendly with most of them.
'A Protected Species'
"We're almost a protected species," he said. "The young guys coming up today have it a little different because they're dealing with big corporations. Years ago, when the brew master had a plant, he ran the whole place and he made a lot of decisions--good, bad or indifferent. Now, when decisions get into big money, like whether or not to make a $10-million expansion, you better call in someone else--like a VP."
But Anderson is still known as a master brewer, and Stroh's Valley operation looks very much like a brewery. Still, it is hardly a mom-and-pop operation. The vast complex turns out more than 2.5 million barrels of beer a year and employs 400 people. Besides Stroh's, the brewery makes Schlitz, Old Milwaukee and Schaefer beers. The Van Nuys plant is the smallest of Stroh's six national breweries.
Anderson is considered an old-timer in the brewing business. He got his first job in 1949 with the Narragansett brewery in Rhode Island when he was just out of high school. After a three-year stint in the Air Force he entered Narragansett's apprenticeship program while he earned a degree in science from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Moved to Piels Brothers