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Saturday, January 05, 2013

Corn's Fraught Status

Pete Dunlop alerts me to what turns out to be a fantastic article on the question of "craft" beer by Jason Notte in The Street.  It's really worth a read if you're obsessed (as, obviously, I am) by the whole craft versus crafty debate.  But what interested me in this piece was how Notte honed in on one practice the Brewers Association frowns upon:
To avoid some messiness, the Brewers Association points to the fact that Yuengling uses corn in its mix and accuses it of cutting corners and trimming costs. The problem is, as fellow blacklisted brewery August Schell Brewing in Minnesota pointed out, older breweries founded by German immigrants tend to use a bit of corn in their recipes because they didn't have access to two-row barley from home and had to cut into the higher protein found in the native six-row barley. 
If you want the full details on that incident in brewing history, check out Maureen Ogle's indispensable Ambitious Brew.  She relates the fascinating story of how brewers pioneered the use of corn and rice to offset the crap quality of American barley.  It was more expensive, made the beer harder to brew, and was an all around pain in the ass--not a shortcut.  Notte points out that that's again the case, and further dismantles BA's reading of the "adjunct" debate.
Given how much craft beer snobs shriek and howl when it's even suggested that a brewery might change recipes when it expands, one would think they'd welcome a brewery such as Yuengling sticking to its original formula for all these years. Oh, and if they think Yuengling's cheaping out, check the price of corn after the biofuel push of the 2000s and compare it with the price of malt. Nobody's getting a break by subbing in corn....

[I]t takes a huge pair of stones for an organization that came into existence in 2005 to call a brewery that's been in existence since 1829, survived through prohibition and is still family owned "non-traditional." 
The status of character-sapping adjuncts has always been a fraught one.  Because, when it saps character, we hiss.  On other hand, there are tons of way to sap character.  Sugar works pretty well.  French brewers used to use potato starch to lighten their beers.  Of course, corn and rice can add character just as well.  I doubt very much, for example, that Steven Pauwels is using corn in his Tank 7 to save money. Corn is an ingredient like any other.  It is not morally suspect.  And it has been an unfortunate scapegoat in the attempt to come up with a definition of bad beer.  And yet, one can't ignore the fairly recent past and how corn was misused, either:

A railcar full of corn syrup in front of
the old Blitz-Weinhard brewery.


  1. For what it's worth: the corn syrup was used to brew Colt 45 and Mickey's Malt Liquor, not Blitz nor Henry's.

  2. Scott, interesting. I always wondered where it was going. It was not, obviously, a small amount.

  3. It is very funny with corn and rice. Many craft brewers who denounce the use of those adjuncts claim that their beers are a "natural product", and yet, corn and rice are a lot more natural than malts.

  4. (Second attempt to comment. Please delete one if t'other shows up.)

    There aren't many recipes in Ron Pattinson and Kristen England's 1909 Style Guide that can be made without corn, so its certainly got pedigree in British beer.

    As far as we can tell, this most recent round of 'pure beer' mania has its roots in the whole food movement of the 1960s and 70s.

  5. It's surprising that nobody's yet mentioned that Russion River uses corn sugar in their (perhaps overly) famous Pliny the Elder.

  6. Bravo for this post. I have been making many of the same points in Notte's article for quite a while. It's good to see that an American agrees with me.

  7. It seems that for the BA, corn and rice are profane "four-letter words."

    Bad puns aside, this post raises an excellent point regarding the tradition of such ingredients. While I believe the BA is trying to play nice for their constituents (in their eyes) it's hard to know where you're going without knowing where you've been.