The nine giant red letters that spell out “BUDWEISER” in capital letters and sit atop the Bevo building at Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in St. Louis look plenty big viewed from Busch Stadium and various downtown buildings two miles to the north, yet nowhere as immense as up close and at eye level, from the upper floors of the Pilot Research Brewery (PRB) deep within A-B’s 112-acre complex. The “B” is 18 feet tall, the rest of the letters 15 feet high.

Dave McWilliams, a civil engineer by trade and homebrewer by hobby, knows a bit about scale, but not the scale Anheuser-Busch operates on. He converted a treadmill into a highly efficient grain mill for his home brewery. It would still take him nearly three hours to mill the 700 pounds of grain that brewers at the PRB used to make his IPA one day in December. That batch would yield less than nine 31-gallon barrels of beer. Production capacity in St. Louis exceeds 15 million barrels annually.

“Commercial brewery makes beer using prize-winning homebrewer’s recipe, film at 10,” hardly seems like news these days. The Pro-Am category at the Great American Beer Festival usually attracts about 100 entries. But none of those homebrewers will get the view of the Budweiser sign McWilliams had or to taste high-gravity Budweiser (with about 8% alcohol, compared with 5% in the finished beer) straight from a “chip” tank, the vessel in which Budweiser lagers along with beechwood chips.

Anheuser-Busch “made a bigger thing out of this than I expected,” says McWilliams, who made sure he savored every moment. His wife, Terry, and two friends joined him at the pilot brewery, a facility few A-B employees see on the inside. He handed out custom-made wood bottle openers to any at the PRB who wanted one.

McWilliams “made my life easy. He just loves beer,” says pilot brewery brewmaster Roderick Read, thinking ahead to a 2015 contest, adding that McWilliams “set the bar pretty high.”

Dave McWilliams Budweiser
Homebrewer Dave McWilliams make the first hop addition to his beer at Anheuser-Busch’s Pilot Research Brewery in St. Louis. Photo by Stan Hieronymus

His beer was the 374th batch of the year made at the pilot brewery. Before they started, brewer Kory Li projected the recipe and all the brewing details on a conference room wall for McWilliams to examine. Li calculated it would take 3,840 grams of Simcoe hops, almost a pound per barrel, to replicate the pungent, resinous aromas in McWilliams’ original beer. “Anything you see that sets off a red flag, speak up,” Read said.

“I do a thick mash-in, thicker than 1 to 1,” McWilliams said, talking about the ratio of water to grain when he brews the beer at home.

“We don’t want to break our equipment,” Read answered, smiling, as they headed to the brewing deck on the floor above.

The Small Inside the Big

A-B built the pilot brewery in 1981, three years before Read was born, when Bud Light was still in nine test markets and a Super Bowl ad cost $275,000. Jane Killebrew, director of quality and innovation, describes it as a “teaching hospital for brewers,” and it serves many purposes. This is where the ingredients from each year’s new crops are evaluated, where recipes are adjusted for individual A-B breweries across the country, where fledgling brewers train, and where new recipes are fine-tuned.

Occasionally a beer gets brewed that is none of the above. Last fall one of the cooperative education students who work in the brewery bought pumpkins and butternut squash, roasted them at home, then brought them to the brewery to make a beer. Read also served the group a beer made from one of his own recipes. It tasted like snickerdoodles. McWilliams’ IPA was another outlier.

Homebrewer Dave McWilliams, his wife Terry and Roderick Read at Anheuser-Busch’s Pilot Research Brewery in St. Louis. Photo by Stan Hieronymus

(Read gave McWilliams and his friends a tour from top, the ninth floor, to bottom, while Batch 373 cleared the brewing kettle. “What are you making?” McWilliams asked. “I can’t tell you,” Read said, smiling again.)

The idea for the homebrew contest began with Tony Caradonna and Jim Watry at Ballpark Village, the entertainment hub across the street from Busch Stadium. “There are so many festivals for craft brewers. We wanted to do one that featured the homebrewer,” said Caradonna, who previously owned O’Fallon Brewery just outside St. Louis. The first Ballpark Village Brewfest included brewing demonstrations and homebrewed beer as well beers from the Anheuser-Bush InBev family.

The contest was separate, with the winner announced during the festival. Each of six area homebrew clubs conducted a separate competition to pick an IPA brewed by one of its members. Those six were judged by an A-B tasting panel, which chose McWilliams’ beer to be made at the brewery. He is a member of two clubs, entered a beer with each, and won the STL Hops Homebrew Club contest.

Homebrewers in the St. Louis area simply know McWilliams as “Davo,” and several have bought or traded for the custom mash paddles he makes. He began homebrewing in 1988, but quit after just a few mediocre batches. He resumed 10 years ago and has brewed steadily since, frequently making IPAs. “I never enter them (in contests). They are Terry’s favorite beer. I make them for her,” he explains.

Homebrewer Dave McWilliams pours his beer at Ballpark Village in January in St. Louis. Photo by Stan Hieronymus

That works when the world’s largest brewing company volunteers to brew a bigger batch for your friends. Appropriately enough, McWilliams kicked off his party at Ballpark Village by pouring the first samples. He brought along two oversized STL Hops tap handles that included the message “Share the Love of Hops.” During a quick ceremony, Caradonna handed him a plaque and announced that the 2015 festival will be on Aug. 29. It once again will include a single-style contest—this time it will be ESB. Ballpark Village plans to invite homebrew clubs from many parts of the Midwest to participate.

A week before, McWilliams tasted the beer for the first time at a smaller gathering in A-B’s Biergarten. He and Read compared samples of two batches McWilliams brewed at home beside the PRB version.

“I was going for three things,” McWilliams says. “One, it had to be the clearest one there. Then it had to have the biggest nose, and, three, you have to have a balance. For this contest, a little less alcohol was better. I’ve got a good recipe now.”

Stan Hieronymus, a contributor to All About Beer Magazine for 22 years, is the author of several books on beer and brewing, including For the Love of Hops. Follow him on Twitter at @StanHieronymus.