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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Versatility of Corn

You may recall that a year ago I went on a bit of a corn jag.  I was rounding the final turn on the Beer Bible and it led me into the fields of the new world's native grain.  I considered how the neighborhoods inhabited by corn beer went from respectable to distressed; I discovered American weissbier; I sampled authentic chicha illegally smuggled in from Peru.  Typically, my momentary enthusiams fail to spark much interest and they slip into the ghostlands of the decaying internet archives.  Corn, however, was intriguing enough to capture the attention of an Ohio homebrewer, who tucked into the subject with more sustained attention than I can usually manage.

He sent along the results of many trials and I've been working my way through them.  Along with obscure annotated bottles, he included a concordance to help decipher the bottles, but I confess I couldn't really line everything up.  (Further descriptions at his blog here, here, here, here, and here.)  And, since you will never have a chance to try the beers, it doesn't matter overmuch whether I knew exactly what I was drinking.  More interesting is what I learned from the sampling.

Most of the beers were modeled roughly on the old Wahl and Henius American weissbier description, and used 30% flaked corn, 20% wheat, and 50% old-timey six-row barley.  He used different yeasts and fiddled with some sour mash and wild inoculation (to sometimes mixed effect*).  But what comes through as you try one after the next is how versatile the grain is.  In one beer, I picked up the classic beer corniness--ala Miller--but this was the exception.  One of the beers was made with the 3711 French farmhouse strain, and it was spectacular.  Belgians use corn a lot anyway, and it thinned out the body in a Belgiany fashion.  It also added a particular kind of rusticity to the palate--almost like cornbread.  It didn't have that processed corn flavor of Miller; it was fuller, more wholesome and natural.  Another of the beers had what tasted like an abbey strain, and it exhibited classic abbey character (it might have been the Duvel strain).  It was clarion, roiling, aromatic, dry, and champagne-like.

They didn't all work.  One of the beers was cloudy and produced large, soapy bubbles.  When Wahl and Henius wrote about American weissbier, they observed that "grits will under no circumstances yield those albuminoids that give Weiss beer its character, as wheat malt does."  By albuminoids, they mean the chunky and chewy stuff that characterize a good weizen, and they could have been writing about this one.  It was watery, thin, and characterless.  In other words, like any ingredient, corn will not redound uniformly to a beer's success.

While I was on my corn theme, I sent out a plaintive call for more brewers to experiment with this lovely grain.  It still retains a whisp of the old taint of cheapness--though the Brewers Association has finally officially ended its jihad against America's grain--and I think this is why you still find it less often included in a recipe than, say, cucumber.  Nevertheless, I renew my call.  Corn is a great grain and can add not only flavor and character to certain styles (Belgians more than German weizens), but has the undeniable virtue of being a local grain.  There is nothing so authentic and traditional as local, so why don't more American craft breweries use it?

*On Friday, I had some friends over and we started sampling.  The very first beer we pulled out had been made via sour mash, and it was easily one of the most offensive substances I have ever encountered.  It was putrid, but while the brewer described the aromatics as "garbage and sweaty feet," I got an undiluted smack of baby diaper.  So far as I can tell, that comes from wayward pediococcus, but I'm not an expert on infections.  I admire the brewer for sending this along all the way from Ohio for purely forensic purposes, but a warning label might have been in order: it took five minutes for the air to clear, even after we'd dumped it down the drain and flushed with water.  Ah, homebrew.


  1. I've had some beers where the corn taste you mention had a fuller, natural taste, like in good cornbread, as you said. One was a cream ale from Barrier in New York. But it also had good malty qualities and that sharp taste cream ale should have, as e.g. in Genessee Cream Ale.

    I'd think Barrier doesn't go as high as 30% in its mashbill. Also, the choice of corn is important too, it should be as natural and full-tasting as possible.

    Too much though can ruin a beer. It is all a question of how it is used. It has its place, but IMO the caution of the early American craft beer enthusiasts, taken as a general stance, is well-advised.


  2. Sorry about the sour mash beer. I thought I was emphatic in the e-mail, but I guess not. Not all of the beers you had were made by me; I convinced several homebrew club members to try the recipe and to select a yeast of their choosing. Hope it wasn't completely painful!