Community feature: Natalie Johnson’s rise from intern to Busch brewmaster

Erica Thompson
Photo by Rob Hardin

Anheuser-Busch was a part of Natalie Johnson's life well before she had a sip of beer. Growing up in St. Louis, the site of the brewing company's headquarters, she was constantly exposed to the brand. Her home baseball team, the Cardinals, played in Busch stadium. And, like most of the world, she saw the beers at parties and in commercials.

“I knew who Spuds MacKenzie was,” Johnson said in an early-September interview. “I knew the Clydesdales.”

Busch was also affiliated with the local Inroads program, which placed college-bound minority students in business internships. As part of Inroads, a then-17-year-old Johnson interviewed for Busch and other manufacturing companies. Her decision was a no-brainer.

“All I kept thinking was, ‘Man, [Busch] is so much cooler than making mouthwash or toothpaste or [diapers],'” said Johnson, who studied chemistry at Fisk University in Tennessee. She began interning in Busch's quality department, running analytics on raw materials. “I was pretty much the coolest person in college.”

More than 20 years later, Johnson is now the senior brewmaster at the Columbus brewery, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. She oversees a large staff, including managers, maintenance techs, a whopping 69 brewers and more. The two brewhouses at the facility produce approximately 30,000 releasable barrels a day.

“I absolutely love being a brewmaster,” Johnson said. “It is, by far, the coolest title you could possibly have. I have to tell my husband sometimes not to tell people what I do because that will be all I talk about at the party we go to, or in the restaurant.”

And Johnson's husband, Reggie, used to urge her not to get wrapped up in tasting everything when they went out.

“I look at beer differently,” she said. “I'm looking at the entire experience. When people bring me a bottle, I say, ‘Can you bring me a glass?' … I want to see it because I know what it took to hit that color target, and the aromatics that come off of it.”

Johnson's attention to detail was valuable for her internship with Busch, and her talent earned her a full-time position in the company's Research Pilot Brewery in St. Louis after graduation. There, she worked on the then-new Bare Knuckle Stout.

From there, Johnson settled at the Newark, New Jersey, brewery and held virtually every position within the company, from brewing group manager to assistant brewmaster. She was promoted to senior quality manager and then senior brewmaster there before taking the position in Columbus in November 2016.

“I remember watching Natalie from afar,” said Senior Director of Brewery Operations Tom O'Connell, who has known Johnson her whole career. “She was very highly regarded in her brewing talent, her skills [and] her knowledge. … She had a real passion for beer.”

“When the brewmaster in Newark left, she was a slam dunk to become the brewmaster,” O'Connell continued. “People followed her. They believed in her.”

The Columbus brewery is bigger than the Newark location, and therefore a bigger challenge, which is why Johnson and her husband decided to relocate with their 13-year-old daughter, Madison.

“[Columbus] reminds me more of home, of St. Louis,” Johnson said. “Just people stopping and talking — you didn't get a lot of that in Jersey. … I didn't really stand outside much. I'm in my yard more here. There is more space.”

Like much of the country, Columbus is in the midst of a craft-beer boom, but Johnson said Busch remains consistent at what it does best.

“We are supporters of the beer industry,” Johnson said, mentioning partnerships with craft breweries throughout the country. “We were founded on Americanized lagers. … That's what we pride ourselves in.”

In an industry where women are still the minority, Johnson said she always saw representation at Busch.

“When I started in '97, there were women brewers,” she said. “[And] almost half of our brewmasters [nationwide] are women. … It's part of the strategic plan. How do we make sure that we are very inclusive of women? … How do we do a better job to make it less of this — for lack of a better word —unicorn?”

Also, in 2016, Anheuser-Busch became the first major brewer to sign President Obama's Equal Pay Pledge — a commitment to closing the gender pay gap.

Though she loves being a brewmaster and has a long line of accomplishments, there are still new heights to climb, such as running one of the breweries.

“It's one of those things you've got to see it to be it,” she said, stressing the importance of women and people of color being visible in high-level positions. “We don't have any African-American female general managers. I almost see it as a responsibility.”

“The glass ceiling's real … [but] I feel very blessed to never have felt like that since I've been here,” she continued. “I know it exists, but I almost feel like when I get there, I'll just bust through it.”