|Corn in Beer
by Scott McNally
Corn, in brewing parlance, is an adjunct, a barley substitute. It has also been a four-letter
word, literally and figuratively, for a generation of craft beer enthusiasts who viewed it as
a cut-rate filler used by large national and international breweries to make cheap,
bland beer. Corn sugar, or dextrose, is highly fermentable and is used to boost the
alcohol of malt liquors, beverages that have been implicated in a number of social ills.
That hasn’t been an image polisher, either.
Corn wasn’t always such a villain.Nineteenth-century lager brewers who emigrated to
America found the barley here to be different from the Old World strains they were used
to: It had six rows of grain on each ear rather than the customary two. That hardier
variety contained more protein and less fermentable material, and it produced a beer
with a rougher, huskier taste. Those pioneer brewers found, however, that by blending the
barley with maize they could make a brew that was paler, clearer and smoother on the palate,
an ideal thirst quencher for the sultrier North American summers. Some brewers, like
Anheuser-Busch with its vaunted Budweiser brand, used rice for the same purpose.
Over the years the percentage of adjuncts in beer increased, particularly during
World War II, when rationing forced brewers to scramble for any kind of fermentable
they could find. “Beer and Brewing in America,” a slim 1949 volume published by the
United States Brewers Foundation, estimated that the average barrel of American
beer contained 44 pounds of farm products. Barley accounted for 29 pounds; the
remaining one-third consisted of eight pounds of corn and smaller portions of rice,
assorted grains, sugar and syrup. The earliest craft brewers drew inspiration from
the German Reinheitsgebot, or purity law, which stipulated that only barley malt
could beused as a fermentable.
Brewing with corn is more, not less, challenging say many of today's craft brewers since It
produces such a clean, light-flavored brew that any sign of imperfection shines through.
The brewer has to control the mash temperature precisely to prevent too much of the
starch from being converted to fermentable sugars. It’s a tribute to their skill that they
are able to use it in productive, effective fashion.
The Brewers Association, the trade group representing America’s small brewers, has
never minded small-scale experimentation. But too much corn once could get you
excluded from the fraternity. To qualify as a “craft brewer,” a beermaker has to be
“traditional.” That term originally was defined as having either “an all-malt flagship”
or “at least 50 percent of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which
use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.” Wheat, rye, pumpkins, chili
peppers and raspberries were okay; corn and rice were not.
However, early this year the association decided that its definition was overly restrictive
in that it excluded old, family-owned brewers like August Schell and Yuengling.
Those companies have been making flavorful beers since the 1800s but incorporate
a small percentage of corn grits into their recipes. The BA’s new definition of “traditional”
merely requires a brewer to have “a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers
whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients.” No
specific ingredient is verboten, although the revised definition does not consider
flavored malt beverages like Four Loko or Joose to be beer.
Craft breweries still have to be independent and small, producing fewer than 6 million
barrels a year. But even Yuengling, which will vault over Boston Beer as the country’s
largest craft brewer the next time statistics are compiled, easily qualifies,
having brewed about 2.7 million barrels last year.)