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.