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"Ahh ... Me So Corny"

by: BeerAdvocate on 07-28-2004
Corn. While there are many different varieties, corn is corn. As it applies to brewing, most consumers view its usage as something cheap, less flavorful, horrible to taste (that "nasty corn" flavor) and a product of American brewing, which cheats consumers by not using all malt. But let's take a closer look.

First, not all corn usage is evil, nor does its use immediately make something "cheap." For the most part, corn provides a rather neutral character in beer, which is why some larger brewers use it. Sure, it's basically a cheap way to "cut" the beer, lighten the body and raise the amount of fermentable sugars without doing much else, but that's "cheap" as in cost, not quality, which is an important distinction to make. And sure, there can often be a perceived "corn" character, but if you hate a beer, it's probably not because of this, though you might think so or have been directed to believe so by other beer drinkers (usually misinformed beer geeks). What's really happened is that the mega American brewers, like Miller and Coors, have fucked corn by association and given it a bad name within the beer industry and with consumers, when corn actually benefits from a widespread usage and has a long global history.

Ancient Rome
In Rome, beer was dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of the corn (grain), and the Roman's name for beer was cerevisia. Today, common brewer's yeast is classified as Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

Chicha (South America)
The indigenous people of the Andes drink what is known as chicha, a maize beer that comes in two styles: common-day (less alcohol) and fest-style (very alcoholic and consumed in mass quantities). Not unlike the alewives of England, or brewing throughout much of history, the women make this brew. How? By chewing the maize, they add their saliva to it, then add water and allow it to naturally ferment. The enzymes in saliva aid in the process of converting starch to sugar, then the gruel is exposed to natural yeast and bacteria. The pappy concoction will ferment out to be around 3 percent alcohol by volume, for the common-day version, and contain loads of unconverted nourishing starches. Part of the tradition of drinking chicha is that one must spit out the first sip on the ground, homey-style. One for Mother Earth, yo. From spit to spit.

Kweete (East Africa)
A traditional maize beer from Uganda, kweete sometimes contains millet as a base but is primarily corn-based. It's made something like this: the corn is picked, turned to a mush and soured on an open floor in a house, cooked (or boiled) with water in outdoor barrels, strained through cloth and wrung to get all the juices out, which are then allowed to ferment in small buckets for a small amount of time. As with chicha brewing, the women do all the brewing, and it's very laborious work. Alcohol is probably around 4 percent.

Native American Maize Beer
Corn has been used in American brewing since as early as the 1580s. The colonies used Indian corn, as well as green corn stalks. But before the colonies invaded North America, Native Americans had been brewing corn-based beers for at least 200 years. In fact, Columbus drank corn-based beer offered to him by Native Americans when he arrived to the New World. Native American maize beer was made similar to chicha, wherein the corn was chewed to add saliva enzymes before fermentation.

Corn in Modern-Day Beer
Corn and its byproducts (starch, syrup, flakes, grits, etc.) are widely used in modern-day brewing. As mentioned, it's a cheap adjunct to increase fermentables and stabilize flavors. Larger American breweries made its use popular before prohibition, due to poor malt crops in the US, and after prohibition, as many lost their shirts and needed to cut costs in order to survive. Corn was a viable solution that offered many benefits, and its usage continues today with many of the larger US breweries as well as larger international breweries. Despite what many think, Budweiser uses rice. All of their base ingredients are right there on the label. So why don't more breweries use corn? Actually, many do. Belgians? Rodenbach, the famous Flemish Red, uses corn grits, and some of the Belgian-influenced Unibroue beers use forms of corn. English brewers? Yep. Fuller's ESB uses maize. American? Dogfish Head recently embraced corn and its brewing history with their release of Liquor de Malt, a 40oz malt liquor that comes complete with brown bag. It's brewed with Aztec Red, Taos Blue and Hickory Corn (red, white and blue). The list goes on, proving that brewers can use corn to make great beer.

Oddly, it seems that too many American craft brewers have turned their backs on corn. Why? Perhaps corn is simply not as diverse as the ranges one can get with malt. Maybe because many traditional styles that are being emulated simply don't call for it. Maybe they just don't want to; maybe they don't know how. Maybe they feel the same as some consumers do and equate its usage to being cheap, quality-wise. Or maybe they don't buy into the stigma but could be concerned with the negative association with mega brewers that corn often brings ... so they don't use it, or won't tell you they use it.

That being said, if someone were to draw up a list of brewers using corn in beer today, we'd all be quite surprised as to how many there are. Hell, it might even make you moan: "Ahh ... me so corny!"

Respect beer.
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