Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chatting with Shock Top Head Brewmaster Jill Vaughn about Twisted Pretzel Wheat and her other Shock Top Beers

Shocktop Brewmaster Jill Vaughn 
Give Shock Top credit for having the audacity to actually talk about their beer.

It hasn't always been that way with Anheuser-Busch, (A-B), the parent owner of Shocktop.  A-B is long known for selling beer using animated frogs, simply showing people having good times at parties holding drinking their beer and most recently using an absurd stunt featuring a ping-pong playing Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It made sense not to bring up the actual beer they were selling because when you got right down to it, it was pretty bland, watery and uninspiring.

It's safe to assume that as craft beer emerged as a force that could no longer be countered by slick ad campaigns, A-B finally realized they needed to do something different.  Shock Top has been part of that.  It was formed in 2006 as a seasonal brew called Spring Hill Spiced Wheat.  It won gold in 2006 and silver in 2007 at the North American Beer Awards. That success convinced A-B to brew it year around and they renamed it Shock Top.  Shock Top has gone on to brew various riffs on the tradition Belgian Wheat Beer style, much like Molson Coors's highly successful Blue Moon brand.

As part of this new focus on the beer itself, much of Shock Top's marketing features Jill Vaughn, Shock Top's Head Brewmaster.  You'll find her videos talking about her various brewing creations such as Shock Top's Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat and special release Twisted Pretzel Wheat   Of course, A-B has long used women to promote their beer, but as eye candy in a swimsuit, not as company leaders thoughtfully discussing their creative inspirations.

For all its good intentions Shock Top can't totally escape a certain guilt by association with A-B and is viewed with much wariness and at times, outright derision in the craft beer community. A-B earned a reputation of being the "Evil Empire" from their long history of aggressive sales tactics targeting craft breweries.   It's even more galling now the A-B is seemingly trying to beat craft brewers at their own game with the Shock Top brand.

Pouring Shocktop at a beer festival
(Photo from Shocktop Brewing)
Undaunted, Shock Top keeps reaching out to introduce their beers to the craft beer drinking public. They're embarking on a tour to attend over 400 beer festivals this year and at many of them will be pouring Twisted Pretzel Wheat, which is not available in stores.   As part of this promotion, Shock Top approached me with an opportunity to interview Jill Vaughn about Twisted Pretzel Wheat and her other beers and I took this opportunity to do so.

If Shock Top is part of the evil empire, then Jill Vaughn makes for a terrible Darth Vader. I found her to be engaging, passionate about brewing, with an infectious enthusiasm for creating new beers.  It turns out Jill and I went to school together for three years.  She graduated from The Ohio State University in 1992 with a degree in Food Science, three years after I started graduate school at another department in 1989.  And yes, I've enjoyed a couple of her Shock Top Belgian Wheat's last fall watching Ohio State football games with friends. Let's find out more about the driving brewing force of Shock Top.

Q:  How did you become the Head Brewmaster at Shock Top?

A: A lot of begging, a lot of pleading.  (Laughing).  It took a lot of hard work, and probably took a little bit of luck but I’ve been brewing for a long time, ever since I left college.   I’ve always wanted to do something creative and try new things and jumped at the chance to take this job. 

Q: How long have you been with A-B.

A:  I’m going to date myself.  It’s been twenty-two years this August.

Q: How do you brew a beer that tastes like a pretzel?

A:  Let me tell you the background behind it.  There’s a couple considerations we have for any  Shock Top beer.  We use the best ingredients, and  always brew with wheat malt and some type of citrus.  There’s this place across the street from the brewery that makes these wonderful pretzels.  Pretzels are popular in St. Louis and we wanted to brew something that was part of St. Louis.  Every day when leaving the brewery, you can smell two things: the beer from the brewery and fresh baked pretzels.  We did a lot of experimentation in our pilot brewery with barely malt, wheat malt, citrus and we found a totally cool flavor essence that has all the flavors of a fresh pretzel.  When we tasted the beer, we all found it was exactly what we were looking for.

Q: In addition to the Belgian White, you brewed a ‘smores beer (called Campfire Wheat) that was well received by the judges Draft Magazine, a Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat, Honeycrisp Apple Wheat, Raspberry Wheat, Lemon Shandy. How do you come up with these creations?

A: I’m very fortunate.  I work with a great team of people and we have our own microbrewery we call the Research Pilot Brewery.  It’s like a beer incubator and we do some crazy things.  We’ll brew with virtually anything.  I look to food for a lot of my inspiration.  I love food and get a lot of my ideas from chefs, especially when I travel since I eat out a lot in new places.

The Lemon Shandy makes sense for Shock Top.  People who know a lot about beer are probably familiar with the concept of beer shandy which is beer mixed with a soft drink, often lemonade , but most people don't.  So we put our own twist of the traditional Shandy.

The Honeycrisp Apple Wheat is in the space between cider and beer and then were spice it up with grains of paradise and candi sugar and put our own Shock Top identity to it.

The idea behind the ‘smores beer was to take something familiar that everybody likes brew it in our own Shock Topian way.

Q: Any new beers on the horizon you can talk about?

A: We are constantly playing and experimenting, but I can’t mention any specific beers we’ll be releasing yet.  We should be coming out with another beer in the late summer we’ll be pouring at festivals.  It’s really crazy the kind of stuff we’re come up with and a blast trying all sorts of new things.  It’s really, really fun brewing with anything I can and look forward to experimenting.  It’s just great.

Q: What are the challenges to doing something creative and still needing to brew and sell it at the large volumes required satisfy your corporate ownership?

A: I don’t think it’s any different if you brew with little vessels or with big vessels.  You want to make sure your consumer base is satisfied.  Any brewer needs to know their consumer base and what their customers want.   We know our customers, and want to deliver the best quality beer to them. 

Q: Do you ever read the reviews of Shock Top on sites like RateBeer or BeerAdvocate?

A:  (Pause) I read reviews of all kinds of beers.  Sometimes I’ll take a look at what people are saying on those sites.  I don’t do it very often.

Q: Well, there are certainly some positive reviews of Shock Top on these sites, but there are also some pretty scathing reviews of your beer.  In a lot of craft beer circles, Shock Top with its association with A-B and its larger parent AB InBev is viewed as part of the Evil Empire, a “faux craft brewery”, and there’s a lot of negativity directed at Shock Top and the beers you brew.  What do you think about that?  How does that affect you?

A:  (Deep breath)  Here’s the deal for me.  I’m a brewer and I’ve been brewing beer for twenty-two years.  I don’t quite understand these divisions people make.  I know a lot of brewers and all brewers want to make good beer.  I want to brew good beer and I think I do.  I try not to get too wrapped up in that stuff.
Again, I really don’t understand the division.  Beer is a social beverage bringing people together. I enjoy spending time drinking my beer with other people.


  1. This was a great interview. Jill does seem really engaging, and putting her out there does make ShockTop more palatable, brand-wise. Interesting stuff!

  2. I'm sorry, but she should be fired (or whoever allowed it to actually go into production) for the Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat, it is literally the second worst beer I have ever tasted. The first was a homebrewed "spruce" flavored beer with overwhelming "spruce" flavor. The Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat tastes like Budweiser mixed with cough syrup...really, really terrible.

  3. The Twisted Pretzel Wheat is the best beer I've had this summer. I was able to find it locally, but unfortunately it's no longer available. When I first tried the beer at a beer fest, I must admit that I initially passed it up because of the Shock Top name, but when someone else at the festival mentioned it I thought I would give it a try. I couldn't believe how good it was! While in general I'd agree that the big breweries don't produce very good brews, this one was definitely an exception. I hope they come out again with it next April.