ST. LOUIS — Beer isn't what drew Natalie Johnson to Anheuser-Busch.
She came around to it, of course, once she reached official drinking age. But when, as a high school student in St. Louis, she was offered an internship at the beer giant's flagship brewery, she was drawn to the opportunity by something else.
An aspiring chemist, she jumped at the internship opportunity and launched a career that's right at the top of the brewing ranks. After stints as brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch breweries in Newark, New Jersey, and Columbus, Ohio, Johnson last June took over as brewmaster in St. Louis, making her the first woman to hold that title in the brewery's 168-year history.
We spoke with Johnson last week about her career at A-B, the responsibilities of a brewmaster and how that work has affected how she consumes beer. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in St. Louis, where Anheuser-Busch looms large. Did that influence your decision to go into brewing? I actually started as an intern right out of high school. I was in a program where I had interviews with about four different relatively large companies that all had some type of science in their business, and my goal was to pursue chemistry as an undergrad. When I learned one of the opportunities was with Anheuser-Busch, i was like, "Yes!" That was the front runner for me. The fact that they selected and asked me to become an intern here was like a match made in heaven.
So you were drawn to the brewery because of an interest in chemistry? Yes. I really wanted to work in research and development and more laboratory methodologies. And so when I started interning, I worked in a corporate quality assurance area and our raw materials lab. There we conduct multiple analyses on all the incoming ingredients to provide to the breweries to be able to make decisions on how to use it and what different recipe adjustments they may need to make to keep the beer consistent.
When did the interest in brewing come about? As I studied undergrad, I was able to come back each summer. I could go away and actually study and learn and apply some of those things in a laboratory environment. By my third and fourth summers, I got a little more exposure into the brewery. I was responsible for setting up some routine taste analyses of our worts, of hop analysis, and also sampling out in the process area. So having that interface is what started to intrigue me more about the brewing process. I began to inquire, what would it take for me to be able to go into brewing? As I got closer to graduating, I landed an interview with our research pilot brewery (in St. Louis), which is our small batch innovations brewery.
Craft breweries are known for innovation and experimenting with different styles. Is there room for that in your work at the big brewery? Absolutely. We have an entire innovations team and they're always trying to understand what the consumer is looking for and what they want. Our latest innovation that's out there is Bud Light Seltzer and it's doing very well. We really can't make enough of it at this point, and we hope to keep it that way. But that was something, of course, that was birthed from the consumer. We were able to put something in their hands that they like. So that whole process of understanding and looking at consumer trends and what's the next thing and trying to anticipate that for the consumer, we have an entire team that works on that.
Click here for the full interview.
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