The Maize Maze: Corn's Complicated Relationship with Beer

December 18, 2017

By Miles Liebtag, December 18, 2017

“Adjunct” is a dirty word to some people. In the wider world, it’s mostly used in conjunction with beleaguered academic wage slaves; in the craft beer world, it’s long been a byword for “cheap,” “inauthentic,” or “poor quality,” especially when coupled with the word “lager.”

Adjunct lagers are (generally speaking) beers made with some amount of non-malt source of fermentable sugar, like sugar syrup, rice, or corn. In brewing, “adjunct” simply means any unmalted grain used as a complement to the malt base of the beer. Lots of grains can be malted, like wheat, rye, etc., but barley malt is the most common malted grain used in brewing, and so in common parlance, people often use “adjunct” to mean anything in the brew that isn’t malted barley.

Brewers use adjuncts for lots of reasons: to cut costs (as adjunct grains can be cheaper sources of fermentable sugar than malted barley), to improve foam and head retention, and to lighten the body of a beer, increasing (in theory) drinkability. The use of adjuncts stretches back centuries – so why do adjuncts, particularly corn, get such a bad rap?

Let’s back up a moment. Corn has been a staple crop in America since before America (at least in its post-colonized form) existed. From the hoary Thanksgiving legend to the folksy appellation “corn-fed,” corn is deeply ingrained in the American character, so it makes sense that it would make its way into beer. After all, brewers the world over historically made use of what native source of sugar was available to them.

Corn was also often used in times and places where barley was of poor quality, undesirable flavor, or too dear a cost. As John Stika notes in his piece on the role of corn in brewing, early German immigrants to the US found the prevalent six-row barley variety had a harsh, grainy flavor that made brewing their favorite lager styles from home difficult, and found using corn was a great way to lighten a beer’s body, color and flavor. Outside the US, corn is an important part of English and Belgian brewing traditions, as well. 

Comenius of Reutlingen19th century brewery. Corn's off camera.

Corn’s association with American macro lager brewing extends at least back to the late 19th century when, as Stan Hieornymous notes, corn beer was preferred by a majority of American drinkers because all-malt beers were too “heavy” and intense. Anheuser-Busch, long reliant on rice for the majority of adjunct in its light lagers, even disparaged “corn beer” in its own advertisements, Mr. Hieronymous points out. Today, ABI still uses a large proportion of rice in its Budweiser and Bud Light brands, while other large brewers like Miller-Coors are forthright about their use of corn and corn syrups in their beers which, they say, "gives beer a milder, lighter-bodied flavor.” 

Of course, Americans consume a lot of corn through non-beer vectors. It’s a staple in American cuisine, from movie theater popcorn to the lately decried High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) that sweetens so many of our favorite food products. My own Midwestern family has a favorite casserole dish that graced our Thanksgiving table, and it’s mostly sweet corn, butter and Ritz crackers (recipe approximate).

Which is to say, perhaps, corn hasn’t lately been synonymous with health, or at least healthy foods. America’s modern dependence on corn dates back in part to the huge spike in corn yields after major advancements in farming and plant hybridization during the 1930s and 40s. Its hegemony and ubiquity were further cemented during the Nixon administration, when climbing food prices led the government to invest heavily in subsidies for corn crops, creating huge new agribusinesses and laying the groundwork for the grain's encroachment into theretofore uncorny aspects of our lives.

The use of corn both smooths out and lightens a very intense beer.”

Many in the whole food movement today decry corn as one of the major causes of our still-expanding waistlines. On the beer front, the explosion of government subsidies and continued genetic modifications resulting in higher yields have made corn a much more lucrative crop than barley in many historically barley-growing regions of the country, and, as John Mallet notes in Malt: A Practical Guide from Farm to Brewhouse, “has dramatically contributed to the substantial drop in overall US barley production.”

So when it comes to corn in American beer, we ultimately take the good (or maybe just okay?) with the bad. As the insipid trend of “Mexican-style lagers” continues apace in American craft brewing, more and more breweries are experimenting with the use of corn to make approximations of styles and brands they otherwise mock and deride – because at the end of the day, we’re a corny nation.

People seem to like what corn (and rice!) does to beer in the main, and breweries like Devil’s Backbone understand both corn’s historical place and its practical uses. As the currents of American craft brewing tend more and more toward adjuncts, additives, and flavorings of all kinds, perhaps it’s time to give lowly corn another look. 

Start, perhaps, with these three corny beers: 

GeneseeGreen can, canal, scene.

Genesee Cream Ale

The Beer Judge Certification Program describes cream ale as “a clean, well-attenuated, flavorful American ‘lawnmower’ beer,” and that’s as useful a description as I’ve ever come across. Arguably one of the most misunderstood styles going (due mostly to the name), it is “an ale version of the American lager style,” crisp, usually quite balanced and, yes, somewhat corny, as maize is commonly used in cream ales to lighten body and enhance drinkability. Corn aroma and flavor is sometimes also associated with an off-flavor known as DMS, about which more here, but here it's a feature.

While New Glarus Spotted Cow may be the most sought after cream ale on the market, unless you live in the Badger State, it’s probably not available. So grab a Genesee! Yes, that distinctive green can contains a classic American cream ale made with a certain proportion of maize. So make like an old man day drinkin’ at the corner bar and pop a can of corn soda.

Falls City Kentucky Common

A historical curiosity, the Kentucky Common is native to the Louisville area, and was popular from around the time of the Civil War right up until prohibition throughout west/central Kentucky. It was cheap and quick to produce, a little darker and more flavorful than your typical cream ale, but still fermented with ale yeast and then cold-conditioned.

It also featured a buncha corn: up to 35% corn grits were often used, according to the BJCP. Like many other styles that had all but disappeared, regional craft brewers have resurrected the Kentucky Common: Falls City in Louisville makes a 4% alcohol by volume version of the style featuring both rye and a heaping helping of corn, which lends the copper-colored ale both sweetness and spice.  

Rodenbach Grand Cru

Yeah, you read that right. Corn grits and maize are a staple in Belgian brewing, especially when it comes to the complex sour ales of Flanders. Flanders Red Ales, of which Rodenbach is perhaps the most iconic example, start from a very complex grain bill (the part of the recipe specifying what types of, well, grains will be used) which can include up to 20% maize – that’s quite a lot.

While some brewing traditions in this part of the world are observed more out of a fealty to history, it’s not just tradition that keeps maize in these beguiling sour ales. The use of corn both smooths out and lightens a very intense beer, while also providing some additional fuel for the microorganisms responsible for the acidity and depth of the incomparable Grand Cru. While you may not be able to detect a distinct corn element amid the bold flavors of cherry, chocolate, spice and vinegar, it is an important part of Rodenbach’s DNA.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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