I mentioned the riches contained in an old text by Robert Wahl and Max Henius called (charmingly) the American Handy-Book of Brewing from around the turn of the 20th century. In it they mention some of the beer styles of the day and one caught my eye--American weissbier. They describe it thus:
The material employed and method of mashing is usually quite different [from German methods]. Wheat malt is sometimes, but not generally, used. Instead [corn] grits are employed, usually to the amount of about 30%."W&H hated it, but they were bent on using Berliner Weiss as the standard; in the comparison, they found American weissbier wanting. But how did it taste on its own merit? Whenever you read these old descriptions, that's what springs to mind. Actually reproducing beer from the 19th century is nearly impossible: we use different strains of barley and hops, and our equipment has evolved. Nevertheless, it's interesting to brew the beer as a kind of thought experiment. Well, that's exactly what my Ohio correspondent did (he of Comet fame), and he sent me a bottle. Thirty percent corn, twenty wheat, and fifty six-row. To add authenticity, he used Cluster hops. The procedure:
I also tried something new with this batch: I mashed on Wednesday night, and then boiled the collected wort on Thursday morning. Post-mash, I brought the wort to a boil, and then shut it off and went to bed.The one decision I question--post facto--is that he pitched using the Duvel strain. That decision had more to do with the beer's flavor than the corn: it adds a ton of estery character that muscles itself into the flavor foreground. But the experiment was a success in many other ways. It doesn't track as a German wheat in any way--there's a bit of yeasty turbidity, but one doesn't think either weizen or Berliner weiss. It's much more cleanly American. If you know corn is in the grist, you can find it in the flavor, but it's far from obvious. I get more the sense of corn sweetness, which is a bit different than barley malt sweetness. I was surprised to find that neither the six-row nor the Clusters roughened things up. It was smooth and sweet.
Corn is a native crop and one of the key markers of American brewing. Beer geeks went slightly awry when they decided it was an abomination and affront to brewing; it's nothing of the kind. Americans should reclaim it as an important part of our brewing heritage, and I'm reminded in experiments like this that it can offer something unique and indigenous to a batch of beer.