Sunday, November 14, 2010

Adjuncts (in beer, not the faculty)

Adjuncts: it’s what distinguishes craft beer from the macros (besides all that extra production). No self-respecting craft brewery would add corn, or rice, or a bittering and preserving agent that’s cheaper than hops… and yet many do. The difference is intent. Macro brewers, BudMillerCoors, use adjuncts as a way to lower production costs, maximize profits, and make the body of a beer lighter in color. I think the latter is what the Bud Light “Drinkability” ad campaign is getting at. No harm in that, this being America and all, but replacing barley with rice and/or corn, and blending or replacing hops with hop extract (that’s still labeled “hops” on the ingredients*) makes for a different beer than the usual water, yeast, barley, and hops. An inferior beer, and a cheaper one as well.

As a result of this, there’s been some stigma, historically, against using adjuncts in the craft beer community, but there are signs that this is changing, and I think it’s a good thing. Macros use adjuncts to lower production costs and end up with fizzy yellow water, but some craft brewers are using them for additional flavoring. And some of these adjuncts aren’t cheap.

But first, a slight digression. According to the Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Purity Law, an adjunct is anything added to a beer beyond water, malted barley, and hops (and yeast, which their feeble 16th century minds could not grasp), which would make a great many beers guilty of doing so. But adding oats to an oatmeal stout or wheat to a wheat beer or spices to a winter/Christmas ale isn’t the same because those beers, by definition in many cases, can’t be made without use those ingredients.

Beyond the macros, my first experience with an adjunct came at the Union Square Heartland Brewery (note, actually a brew pub as no beer is made on the premises). Their Cornhusker Lager is made with corn. The end result is that the beer tastes a bit like Fritos. Seriously. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you, but Cornhusker Lager is a good introduction to what adjuncts can do to a beer.

Flying Fish Brewing is working on a series of beers inspired by Jersey Turnpike exits (yes, really). Their exit 16 offering, not too far away from some of the chemical factories that make food adjuncts like “banana flavor” and “smoke flavor,” chronicled in Fast Food Nation, includes wild rice, a tribute to the marshlands that have been (mostly) paved over.

So if you’re into craft beer and are stridently anti-adjunct, ease up. Just like in the courthouse, intent matters. If you already knew all this, what are some of your favorite craft beers that include adjuncts?

-- I’ll get you started: Dogfish Head Bitches Brew, which uses gesho root because it’s hard for hops to grow on the arid steppes of East Africa**, and Brewer’s Art Green Peppercorn Tripel, a one-of-a-kind beer in which spice and booze give way to a snappy, peppery taste.

* What, you thought your Miller Lite was dry-hopped with Warrior? One of my favorite double IPAs, Lagunitas Hop Stoopid (sound), does something subversive (as far as beer goes) by including the same liquid hop solutions used by the macros, but at extreme levels, in addition to actual hops. The end result is delicious, similar to grapefruit juice. It’s rarely more than $5 for a 22 oz bottle and is worth every penny.

** Dogfish itself presents craft brewers with food for thought because by recreating and updating older beer styles they implicitly acknowledge that the purity law and concern with adjuncts are recent phenomena. For most of human history if beer was made it was made with what was local, usually including things that are now considered adjuncts. Sahti and tella are two examples of ancient beer styles.