Additives in Beer

Ask the Beer Geek by | Jan 2009 | Issue #24

Illustration by Ana Benaroya

I’ve been searching for beers that have no additives in them and fewer corn products. It would be great if we had the purity laws of Germany, but we do not. I know that microbreweries are less likely to contain chemicals and funky things. Is there any hope of me being able to find out which beers have which ingredients? If there is any way you can help me find a better answer to this question, I would be greatly appreciative. —Zack

Hey, Zack. Whoa. Déjà vu! Two different Zacks with questions for me in back-to-back months? I should’ve put money down on those odds. OK, back to your question. So you’re looking for beers with no additives and fewer corn products? Let’s start with additives. Merriam-Webster defines an additive as:

[noun] A substance added to another in relatively small amounts to effect a desired change in properties.

Based on this, I can tell you that nearly every brewer—including craft brewers—on planet Earth uses some form of “additive” in their beer. This could range from simple brewing compounds that adjust water pH levels, to nutrients and enzymes that help make happy yeast. Today, you’ll even find some of these additives in beers that conform to the Reinheitsgebot—that German Purity Law that restricts German brewers who brew beer for the German market to using only barley, hops, water and yeast.

So I’ll have to assume you mean additives in the negative sense. Unfortunately, there’s no federal regulation that requires brewers to include a list of ingredients on their labels (like any other food item that is ingested and eventually expires). And additives/chemicals have been given a bad rap—but they’re not all bad, and they’re often necessary. And let’s not forget that even the water that we drink and brewers use in brewing is treated with chemicals.

A quick search on the web shows that substances like urea, potassium sulfate, sodium benzoate, antifoaming agents, flavor enhancers, sodium citrate, tartaric acid, corn syrup, genetically modified malt and hops, amyloglucosidase enzyme, propylene glycol alginate, chemically modified hop extracts, carbon dioxide, papain enzyme, liquid sugar, potassium metabisulfite, Emka malt—to name are few—are used in beer. Arguably, these are all harmless and some don’t even make it into the finished beer, but various sources point to their use mostly by larger breweries that produce very popular mass-produced and mass-marketed beers. They tend to have to use an array of “funky things” in order to maintain consistency, longevity, perceived freshness and quality on a global level—like any other mass-produced edible.

As for corn, you’re not going to find too many craft brewers using it. In fact, I’d guess that the vast majority don’t use corn at all. However, some will use corn in the form of corn starch or flaked maize for various reasons—but corn is not the evil adjunct that many make it out to be due to its association with so-called “cheap beer.” Sure, it’s used in many mass-produced beers to cut the body, flavor and perhaps the cost of beer, but its use in fermented beverages dates back hundreds, even thousands, of years.

And back to the Reinheitsgebot. No. It would not be great if we had those restrictions here in the USA. Respecting and acknowledging tradition is great and whatnot, but at some point, tradition can become boring and choke the creativity out of brewing.

In summary, buy beer from craft brewers. I’m guessing you already are, so you’re all set. If you still have doubts… ask the brewery.