Redefining the brewer's art

Posted: March 07, 2014

IT TURNS out, corn isn't so bad after all.

After decades of pounding the cob, the solons who represent America's small brewers now say it's OK to lighten beer with corn, rice and other so-called adjunct ingredients.

In other words, the days when craft beer distinguished itself as all-malt are all gone.

The change came as the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association this week announced several revisions in its "core values and beliefs," including its troublesome definition of "craft brewer."

To outsiders, the changes may be inside baseball. Who cares what you call the guy who makes our beer as long as he makes good stuff?

But, as the association's director, Paul Gatza, acknowledged, the corn question reaches directly to "fundamental elements of our industry."

The most fundamental of those elements is: What makes craft beer different from regular beer? Or, to put a dollar sign on it: Why should I pay more?

From the very start, that difference was ingredients.

In 1977, upon the founding of New Albion, America's first microbrewery, co-owner Suzanne Stern told the Associated Press that her beer was better because mainstream brews were made with "adjuncts, like corn and rice, instead of the pure ingredients we use: hops, yeast, malt and water." She called domestic beer "a national disgrace" because it contains "chemicals, stabilizers and all sorts of things."

Over the next decade, Boston Beer founder Jim Koch echoed that theme as he bashed such high-priced imports as St. Pauli Girl as a "fraud" because it was made with adjuncts.

The craft image

Stern, Koch and other pioneers of the craft-beer movement were not wrong. Most domestic and many imports were swill precisely because they were made with cheap, watered-down ingredients. No hop character, no malt body - just fizzy, yellow liquid.

The difference was not just about flavor - it was about perception.

With a well-honed image as artisans painstakingly handcrafting small, all-malt batches, microbrewers distinguished themselves from giant, soulless, profit-driven factories in St. Louis and Milwaukee that spewed tanks of "artificial" beer. Accurate or not, the image enabled brewers to personally connect with consumers, which was key in persuading beer drinkers to shell out for a better beer.

In this fable, corn was evil.

You could have predicted what happened next: The big brewers - awakened by the growth of craft brewing - started making their own all-malt beer, through subsidiaries including Leinenkugel, Blue Moon, Michelob and, lately, Goose Island and Blue Point.

"All-malt" was no longer a line of demarcation between big and small.

The new 'traditional'

In late 2012, the Brewers Association - freaked by the big foot about to trounce its turf - redrew the line. In a well-publicized campaign called "Craft vs. Crafty," the association declared that a craft brewer must be "small, independent and traditional."

Small and independent - that was easy to define. But what makes a brewery "traditional?"

"A brewer who has either an all-malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers [sic] brands) or has at least 50 percent of its volume in either all-malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor."

The campaign, which irked some of the association's own members, was clumsy and shortsighted, not to mention ungrammatical.

It was also historically inaccurate, as more than one critic pointed out, because some of America's best-known small brewers - including now-blacklisted Yuengling, Straub, August Schell and Lion - had been using adjunct grains for 100 years or more.

You know: traditional.

In fact, most every pre-Prohibition lager maker added corn or rice, because typical American-grown barley was not conducive to making clean, clear European-style lagers. These adjuncts actually made the beer better.

As Schell brewmaster Jace Marti wrote following his brewery's condemnation, "We continued to brew our beer using this small portion of corn because that was the way we traditionally brewed it."

It's not just the old-time brewers who use adjunct ingredients. Coffee, chocolate, spices - they're all turning up in much-beloved modern craft beers. Even the world's so-called greatest beer, Russian River Pliny the Younger (which hits taps in Philly this week), is notably made with an adjunct ingredient, namely sugar.

OK, back to the Webster's.

The association issued a new (still clunky) definition: "A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation . . . "

"The revised definition," the organization helpfully explained, "recognizes that adjunct brewing is quite literally traditional, as brewers have long brewed with what has been available to them."

So, that fable about all-malt beer? Forget about it.

Corn is officially unevil.


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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