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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Amercian Weissbeer Realized

In about a month's time, we acknowledge the country's 237th birthday, and in celebration, I plan on doing a series of deep dives into the nature of American beer.  It was one of the many interesting discoveries I made in writing the Beer Bible: there is American beer after all, and it's not an insignificant or purely derivative tradition.  Consider today the inaugural post in the series. 

Three months ago, 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.


  1. Corny Duvel. Interesting.

    Next time you find yourself in Bavaria being told how evil adjuncts are in American beer, thank them for the idea to use them in the first place. It was some Bavarian brewer (or school?) that came up with the idea to use corn & rice to solve the problems with mashing 6-row barley.

  2. Anton Schwarz, a Bohemian brewing chemist, is usually credited with popularizing adjunct brewing in the US. Here’s how Wahl & Henius put it in their "American Handy-Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades":

    "It was Anton Schwarz who first advised the employment of rice and subsequently of Indian corn, which is so abundant in this country. The stubborn perseverance with which he sought to convert the conservative brewers to his ideas and finally succeeded in so doing and, last, not least, the discovery of suitable methods for scientifically applying them, entitle him to be called the founder of raw cereal brewing in the United States."

    Schwarz was a student of Balling and studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Prague. He would later found an early US brewing school, The Brewers’ Academy of the United States. I’d imagine that adjuncts were also being researched and experimented with at other European brewing schools at the time.

    As for the Germans using adjuncts, this quote from from Cochran’s history of Pabst always amuses me, considering the current belief that adjuncts are used only to "cheapen" beer. In mentioning that by the late 1860’s (in the US) corn meal and rice were being experimented with to brew a lighter (more pilsner-like) beer.

    "As German brewers had already used rice, which was cheap in Germany whereas corn was a relatively high-priced import, rice was the first grain tired in the United States; but further experimentation soon revealed that American corn, was, as least, equally good."

  3. You have clearly forgotten the Cornval experiments of '09 foreshadowing this quite valid cultural assertion of yours.

  4. I do agree with you about the Duvel strain, but it was what I was brewing with at the time. This beer, however, has convinced me of the merit of corn--I'll be trying a couple more versions of the American Weissbier next week to see how other yeasts compare. I'll keep you posted on the results.

  5. What on earth possessed you do do that, Alan?

    WWD, definitely keep me/us in the loop.

  6. Goes back to my pro-corn lobbying days.

    Seriously, thought, the phobia held by craft brewers and drinkers about corn is bizarre. You'll put antelope turd in a beer and sell it for 13 bucks a bomber but God forbid there is any corn in the brewer.