Who’s Afraid of a Big Bad Adjunct?
At Bear Republic’s production facility in Cloverdale, CA, Brewmaster and COO Richard Norgrove is talking about his first exploratory trip to England and holding an old plastic jar. After explaining how that initial trip came about from a friend’s encouragement, looking back almost twenty years, Richard goes on to say, “I fell in love with a lighter style of beer that I normally wouldn’t get here in the States, which was a mild. And that kind of became the quest for a second trip, to go out and understand that style.”
Inside the plastic jar, there’s a brown, viscous substance reminiscent of molasses, or dark maple syrup. It’s the same stuff that the English brewery Batemans uses in their Dark Mild, three-time CAMRA ‘Mild of the Year’ and a key influence on Norgrove’s (and others’) appreciation of that style. Martin Cullimore, Batemans’ Head Brewer and Director, showed him the key ingredient during one of his trips: the secret to making a 3 percent mild the color of a porter, but without the accompanying bitterness or roasted bite.
When Norgrove attended a brewmaster series being held at Marston’s, another English brewery, he had the opportunity to talk openly with a number of these local breweries. “All the brewers there, they had no problem telling us anything about English beers, how things were done. I had an opportunity to learn from them and then come home and incorporate some of these things into our beers. […] Martin was well enough to show me where and how he was imparting this really rich, dark character.”
Invert sugar. Essentially, sucrose (table sugar) broken down into simpler sugars, then heated so that the process of caramelization develops additional flavor characteristics. Easily fermented by yeast. Strongly aromatic. Batemans developed their processing methods with the assistance of a local confectioner.
We started our own series of experimentations within [Bear Republic], to kind of get an understanding of how different sugars were going to relate.” Richard explains their in-house setup: currently, some cut-top kegs with propane burners. He and Peter Kruger, Bear Republic’s Master Brewer, have already been discussing the next steps ahead of them. A copper confectionary kettle, constant stirrers, direct flames. Kruger adds, “At some point, we will have one sitting over in a little room that we can fire up.” Earlier in the conversation, there was mention of procuring a coffee roaster for roasting their own dark malts.
In putting together the various pieces of adjunct usage in America, the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” has come up on more than one occasion. It comes up again today. We’re not talking about things that normally get discussed openly (although this is partly because usually no one bothers to ask). I’ve come here because I want to know more about these things: sugar additions, rice, corn. How these ingredients can be used to make beer better. How adjunct uses are changing and developing in America. And how these brewing tools may very well serve an important role in the future of craft beer.
Adjuncts in America
Depending upon whom you talk to, the definition of “adjuncts” with regards to brewing can vary widely. The dictionary definition of the word (granted, not one of the most frequently used words in the English language…) suggests something added, but not necessarily essential to the task at hand. Some brewers include spices and other things that can’t be fermented. Others limit it to only the ingredients that serve to lighten body and color, such as corn and rice additions. Old definitions still refer to anything that isn’t “Gersten, Hopfen und Wasser”: barley, hops, and water. One professional brewer, after being asked for his own personal definition of the word, replied, “Are you asking the German in me, or the American?”
That “added but not essential” part can vary depending upon context and culture.
But, to really get to the heart of things, it’s necessary to gather a more robust working definition. In U.S. brewing culture, the most commonly accepted definition is also the one that most clearly aligns with the functional role the included ingredients serve in the brewing process. The Brewers Association recently gave the definition as follows: Any substitute unmalted cereal grain or fermentable ingredient added to the mash [brewing stage that converts plant starches into sugars] in order to reduce costs by producing, more usually, cheaper fermentable sugars, and/or to produce paler, lighter bodied, and less malty beers, or, as in the case of wheat, to produce special beers, or to correct the composition of the extract. […]
Briefly: adjuncts are “unmalted fermentables.” They’re ingredients providing starches and/or sugars that can ultimately be fermented by yeast, but (because they’re not malted) they don’t have the same ability to convert their own starches into sugars during the mash. This will be familiar ground to homebrewers, who know that attempting to brew with 100 percent unmalted wheat will generally end in heartbreak. Malted barley, malted wheat, malted rye, etc. are not considered adjuncts—in this definition. Unmalted barley, unmalted wheat, unmalted (insert favorite cereal grain here), sugar, honey, corn, rice, etc. are.
Some of these, of course, are traditionally more beloved than others. Roasted unmalted barley is a key ingredient in dry stouts. Dark, caramelized sugar additions are often used generously in stronger Belgian ales. And without unmalted wheat… Well, say goodbye to witbiers and lambics as we know them.
The negative connotation of adjuncts in America (good luck finding a beer with ‘adjunct’ in its name, or on its label) comes from any number of influences, but it’s worth revisiting the two central ones briefly.
The Reinheitsgebot, or traditional “Bavarian Purity Law of 1516,” is frequently cited as a deciding factor in what does or doesn’t belong in “traditional” beer. In the U.S., this particular piece of brewing history is one of the most well known, as well as one of the most frequently misunderstood (partly because it’s complicated and, well, usually in German). Some key historical tidbits: (1) The “reinheit” or “purity” part didn’t actually appear in legal texts until around 1918. (2) The law, in addition to being originally limited to Bavaria (and not including yeast as an allowed ingredient), changed over the years, eventually to the point of permitting different ingredients for lagers and ales, including beet and cane sugars in the latter. (3) The Reinheitsgebot was repealed from German law by a European Court in 1987, due to restricting free trade, and was replaced by the less strict “Provisional German Beer Law” in 1993. These aren’t jabs at the historical import of the Reinheitsgebot, but should highlight limitations in over-applying it here.
And the second influence on the negative connotation of adjuncts? Well, that’s the big one.
Corn, Rice, and Fizzy Yellow Beer
For thousands of years, artisan brewers made use of whatever fermentable ingredients were available, palatable, and didn’t conflict with the food supply. Common fermentables included barley, wheat, rice, corn, millet, oats, honey, and fruit, and brewing practices and preferences tended to be very dependent upon geography. The luxury of a vast palette of potential ingredients is a relatively recent development.
The negative connotations surrounding corn and rice in American brewing—many of which are certainly deserved—are also a relatively recent thing. Corn and rice additions in America date back to at least the 1500s, and pre-Prohibition Pilsners and other styles tended to be significantly more flavorful and highly hopped than current macro lagers. Randy Mosher indicates IBU levels around 25-40, significantly higher than current American adjunct lagers (5-14 IBUs). But between Prohibition, two World Wars, and a cost-cutting mindset that eventually led to corn and rice being used in higher and higher percentages (due in part to their relative cheapness and body/flavor lightening qualities), it became a race to the bottom.
Such were the circumstances when the American craft beer industry began.
In talking with Jeff Erway, Master Brewer at La Cumbre Brewing Co. (previously: Head Brewer at Chama River), he emphasized that the all-malt focus of early craft brewers was vital for establishing the groundwork of what craft brewing stood for in this country. “I think what’s really inspirational, as far as the American craft brewer scene goes,” Erway commented, “is that back in the 80s and 90s, there was this taboo of using anything other than malted barley, malted wheat, hops, water, and yeast to make beer. That had to do with simply trying to separate our selves from those macro lagers.
I think it was important that Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada, the big guys that came out in the 80s, said ‘Well, we don’t use that garbage.’ And that’s what it is, it’s garbage, the stuff that they’re using. They’re not just using corn and rice; they’re using the cheapest corn and rice they can possibly get.”
They’re also using them in consistently huge amounts: up to 50 percent of the recipe.
Corn, rice, and related ingredients serve a functional role in the brewing process. They lighten the body of a beer compared to an all-malt recipe, and are crucial ingredients for adjusting mouthfeel and body in certain traditional styles. Corn additions are commonly utilized in everything from cream ales to English bitters to Flanders red ales (which often include 20 percent corn grits). Wayne Wambles, Head Brewer at Cigar City, uses 5 percent flaked corn in his popular Guava Grove saison. He and others have commented that one of the reasons that certain Belgian-style renditions in the States often diverge from their predecessors is due to being all-malt interpretations, which won’t produce the same overall body and dryness as using a highly fermentable adjunct such as sugar, corn, or rice. “That’s one of my ideas as far as how I’m using flaked corn in this particular product,” Wambles said, “trying to encourage attenuation, lighten the body, slightly increase alcohol a little bit. And there’s no corn perceived in the flavor profile or the aroma.
“Craft brewers commercially, homebrewers, craft beer drinkers have been fed over a period of time that putting corn in your beer is bad and putting rice in your beer is bad, and that’s just simply not true.” The Brewers Association’s definition of an American craft brewer actually acknowledges this distinction, and considers adjunct usage “traditional” so long as they are used to “enhance rather than lighten flavor.” If a bit vague, this idea of “enhancing flavor” is also key to understanding why craft brewers use adjuncts.
Mark Jilg at Craftsman Brewing Co. produces a highly successful pre-Prohibition-style 1903 Lager, which includes two-row barley and just under 20 percent flaked corn—as well as hefty additions of Mt. Hood hops. Coupling a charismatic, grassy hop character and toasty maltiness with the crisp sessionability of a pale lager, the beer’s grown to 40 percent of Craftsman’s production. Richard at Bear Republic, whose heritage is part Nicaraguan, uses 3 percent corn in their brewpub’s El Oso beers to replicate the body and flavor traits of traditional Mexican-style lagers. Why not all-malt? “It would just be too sweet,” Peter Kruger replied. “There’s a drinkability there. And the use of corn in some of those beers really adds to that drinkability. Michael Jackson called it ‘moreness.’ You want another one.” At 4.5 percent, their El Oso Lager shows toasty cereal notes, some light caramel, and a balancing mineral hop character. And it’s a pleasure to drink.
Very few people are really talking about the palate experience,” added Mark Jilg. “Very few people are talking about the actual activity that is the enjoyment of beer. […] Talk to people who really aren’t very geeky about beer, and they’ll tell you about the sensations, the actual physicality of enjoying beer.” Even small adjustments to texture and mouthfeel can have a significant effect on a beer’s drinkability.
Trevor Schaben, Brewmaster of Thunderhead Brewing Co. in Nebraska, takes corn additions one step further. He has a local homebrewer and home maltster, Ken Anderson, malt organically produced yellow corn, which he uses at about 6 percent in his Cornstalker Dark Wheat. He uses it as a local, indigenous ingredient for his beers, and the malting process appears to both improve the fermentation qualities of the corn (depending upon how much it’s kilned) and reduce its staling tendencies. Sweet corn is highly appealing for its aromatic and flavor profile, though he’s found it difficult to get a steady, properly-dried supply. And while corn is generally pegged as a cost-cutting addition in beer, most small breweries don’t actually see the same price advantage the macros do. Schaben pays $0.78/pound for British two-row malt, and $1.00/pound for malted yellow corn. Malted sweet corn, when he can get it, is twice that price.
In a beer like Cornstalker, which also has 8 percent chocolate malt and a hefty amount of wheat, the net effect is a much more drinkable, drier final product that comes across as more of a German-style dunkel than a dunkelweizen. Nutty, lightly roasted, with a vibrant wheatiness, the corn addition helps limit the wheat’s impact on the beer’s body. “You add the corn […] to get the beer the way you want to get it.” For Schaben, it’s a local, organic product, and craft brewers in general will do well to follow his example in this regard (Fullsteam Brewery in North Carolina, similarly, uses local fermentables in their ‘Plow to Pint’ series).
Whether or not malted corn is technically still an adjunct is left as an exercise for the curious reader.
Sugar, But Not Sweet
Remember sugar? Old, reliable sugar? … Well, even the state of sugar is changing.
Dark Candi, Inc. was mentioned by a number of commercial brewers for helping change the landscape of Belgian-style brewing in this country. Randy Mosher and Stan Hieronymus have both written extensively elsewhere about the differences between authentic Belgian candi sugars/syrups and the much different (and less concentrated) rock candy varieties available in American homebrew shops. “The rocks are kind of useless, because it’s just sugar,” Randy noted. “Even the dark ones don’t really have much color.”
Dark Candi became the first importer of authentic Belgian caramelized sugars back in 2006, and remains the only importer of these products in the U.S. Originally a hand-labeled and hand-packaged enterprise, they partnered with a commercial packager two years ago and significantly expanded their distribution here. Whereas many U.S. brewers tried to replicate the flavor profiles of Belgian beers by using specialty grains or rock candy, these super concentrated and heavily caramelized sugars and syrups are crucial for getting both the depth of flavors and the characteristic dryness (as the sugars are highly fermentable).
How important is Belgian candi syrup? “If you’re trying to brew a beer like Rochefort,” Mosher answered, “You kinda gotta have this stuff.” In typical fashion, he added, “A homebrewer can make their own…”
It will come as no surprise that some American brewers are already taking matters into their own hands. Bear Republic has been developing its own invert sugars. Saint Somewhere Brewing in Florida and The Bruery in Southern California have been making their own specialized sugars in-house. There are also a number of specialty sugars already available to brewers. In Radical Brewing, Mosher uses imported sugars like jaggery (essentially, Indian palm sugar) and piloncillo (boiled sugar cane juice from Latin America) in certain recipes to lighten their overall body and sweetness, as well as to showcase their unique flavors.
Those same lessons learned from Belgian-style brewing—the utilization of readily fermentable sugars to brew big (but highly palatable) beers—are also being increasingly used in more American-centric styles: IPAs, double IPAs, imperial stouts, plus a whole slew of other high-ABV offerings. Asked whether a lot of commercial breweries are using sugars in this fashion, Jeff Erway responded, “I think the good ones are.”
“[Sugars] can add to the overall drinking experience by taking a beer that’s 8 percent alcohol,[…] or with a 10 percent-alcohol barley wine or imperial stout, and taking that beer down a little bit of a level so that it’s actually a beer that you can sit down and really enjoy a 12-ounce bottle of, or split a 22-ounce bottle of it, and enjoy the whole thing without feeling like you’ve just had a full meal.” It doesn’t take much sleuthing to find top-tier American breweries using sugar. Peter Kruger explained, “It’s sort of an industry secret.”
The Great Beyond
And yet, like everything so far, there was never a sense of foul play, never a feeling of hidden agendas or deceit when brewers talked about how and why they used certain adjuncts in their brewing procedures. If anything, they want consumers to know and understand why these ingredients are important and vital for brewing traditional styles, for improving mouthfeel, for adding unique flavors and aromas to beer. If there’s one platitude worth suffering through, it’s that things have changed a lot in the last thirty years.
Certainly, there’s a huge importance in craft beer continuing to distinguish itself from the insipid macro lagers of the world—but even the original all-malt approach of American craft beer was a simplification, an easy distinction that ultimately was a little blind to traditional brewing in other countries, and even a little blind to the brewing traditions of our own. Over the last three-plus decades, the quality, selection, and consistency of brewing supplies in the U.S. have greatly improved. Craft breweries have benefited from clearer understandings of traditional brewing cultures abroad (Bear Republic’s friendly connection to Batemans, for example, is by no means an isolated case). And American craft breweries have earned their reputation for innovation, for experimentation, and for making some awesome “adjunct beers.”
Honestly though, when it comes to beer, the most convincing evidence is generally the kind that comes in a glass. It’s one approach to write about these things from the sidelines, but another entirely for these breweries to simply use adjuncts as brewing tools and let their handiwork speak for itself. “What should matter to us is the drinking experience,” Jeff Erway said to me, near the end of our conversation. “That’s what we’re doing, after all. We’re not advocates for a certain agenda. We’re advocates for great beer.”
Ken Weaver is a renewable energy consultant, freelance journalist, and fiction writer (K. M. Weaver) living in northern California. He’s an admin at Ratebeer.com and Managing Editor of The Hop Press.