We all know the history of American beer: back in the good old days, before Prohibition, honest brewers made honest beer using only malt, hops, water, and yeast. Then came repeal and the era of Corporate Beer: corn- and rice-based swill with no flavor and even less body.
During the second half of the 19th century, the United States was flexing its industrial muscle- and was working up an incredible thirst. Fortunately, emigrated German brewers had a recipe for a new kind of American brew.
The truth is more complex. As the late George Fix noted in 1994, pre-Prohibition brewers created full-bodied lagers using both corn and rice. I kept Fix’s words in mind as I researched my book Ambitious Brew: The Story of the Immigrants and Entrepreneurs Who Invented American Beer (forthcoming, October 2006). I discovered that German-American brewers began using “adjuncts” in the early 1870s and for reasons that were both surprising and unexpected.
German émigrés introduced lager to the United States in the 1840s, and during that decade and the next, it was drunk primarily by German-speaking immigrants. But in the 1860s, lager’s popularity spread throughout the general population. Brewers’ demand for grain outpaced farmers’ ability to provide barley. The situation worsened in the early seventies, when several years of bad weather and blight ruined crops.
The combination of high prices and limited resources forced brewers to face an uncomfortable fact: all-malt Bavarian lager was ill-suited to new world brewing, and not just because of barley shortages. American six-row barley contained far more protein than could be processed by the grain’s starches during the mashing process. Lagering—weeks of cold storage—precipitated much of the excess protein, but dregs remained as unsightly globs that formed haze, soured the beer, and shortened the lager’s life. If brewers could eliminate excess proteins, the beer would be more stable and durable; they could ship it longer distances and so expand their markets. And if they could brew with some grain other than barley, they would ease the stranglehold of high prices caused by crop shortages.
In the late 1860s, many brewers began adding corn to their mashing tuns. Like barley, corn is rich in starch that can be converted to sugar. Unlike barley, it contains little protein. Mixing corn into the brewing mash added an extra helping of starch that absorbed excess proteins and, as a bonus, “stretched” the grain, much the way a cook might add pasta to a pound of hamburger to make it go further.
But every brewer who experimented with corn soon learned that what sounded good on paper turned sour in practice. Corn’s abundant oil infused the lager with a rancid flavor. Brewery employees could eliminate the oil by grinding the corn to remove the husk and kernel, but doing so added another layer of expense to the process. And that was just one of the many puzzles of adjunct brewing. What was the best ratio of corn to barley? Should it be cooked first and then added to the barley mash? Or added at the outset and cooked with the barley? How long should it be boiled and at what temperature? Only time and trial taught brewers how to use corn, but every move cost money—and when something went wrong, the entire mess had to be flushed into the gutter.