What’s Traditional? Revisiting History through Adjuncts

Recently, David Berg published an impassioned article on Good Beer Hunting’s website, defending the use adjuncts from both historical and scientific standpoints. Himself a brewer at August Schell Brewing for over 20 years, Berg objects to the ongoing criticism of adjunct ingredients in craft beer culture, particularly the Brewers Association’s “blacklisting” of large brewers who employ them. He goes out on a limb to justify adjuncts to a community that shudders at their very mention, but I was left wondering why he didn’t go even further.

Berg points out that, historically, American brewers faced significant obstacles which prevented them from using two-row varieties of barley for their malt (the ideal choice, he explains). Forced to make due with undesirable six-row barley, 19th century brewers incorporated unmalted cereal adjuncts like rice and corn because they provided a number of technical advantages that improved the taste and clarity of the final product. As Berg argues, claims that adjunct use betrays supposedly “traditional” approaches to American brewing is not only inaccurate, since adjuncts are themselves traditional, but ultimately a distraction from the “end result”: good tasting beer.

It’s a compelling idea, and Berg aligns it well with Schell’s own 157 year history. In particular, he takes issue with the Brewers Association’s original definition of craft beer, which excluded Schell as well as any brewer which employs adjuncts to “lighten flavor.” Implicitly, this definition referred to the use of unmalted cereal grains in brewing, which the B.A. views as non-traditional.

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Six-row barley (top) and two-row barley (bottom) (Source: International Barley Hub)

 

To counter this, Berg discusses the historical role of 1800s barley cultivation in the adjunctification of American beer, but he doesn’t end up accomplishing as much as he wants to. Notions of tradition end up being pitted against economic imperatives, with aggregated consumer taste overriding concerns over process, tradition, or anything else.

Reframing Berg’s historical perspective on adjuncts could do the job while incorporating these other points of view.

Let me be clear: I have no shade to throw. Berg clearly states that he’s not a historian, and writes from his own perspective and expertise. My point here is mostly the same as his: that brewing history can greatly enrich our understanding of the brewing present, even when that means challenging assumptions that we thought were stable. However, the manner by which we reach our conclusions is critically important, lest a misunderstanding of the past lessen its usefulness to the present.

Rather than nitpick details, I wish to show that while American brewing history is even more complex than Berg suggests, it can also make a much stronger case for his point of view.

 

Barley Matters

Berg inadvertently applies his style of thinking and his perspective to the past, rather than taking the past on its own terms. He imagines 19th century brewers and drinkers as unified groups without regard for the clashing perspectives and technological progress that characterized the century. Ale and lager brewers spent decades fighting over customers; a brewer in 1900 would view his 1800 counterpart not as innocently behind the times, but as laughably primitive. American lagers (especially light lagers) became the single most preferred style in the late 19th century, but a much wider range of beer styles existed in the U.S. before Prohibition.

In other words, American beer spent a century not only growing, but discovering its own identity. Generalizations that gloss over this turbulent process can hide important context. Berg does this when he discusses barley production.

In Berg’s argument, six-row barley was reluctantly accepted by brewers with no alternative, since two-row varieties were unavailable due to unfavorable growing climates in the east and Midwest. He presumes that early 1800s brewers would know what he knows, that two-row barley provides 1-2% more extract potential, when their malting practices (which involved spreading the wet grain out on the brewery’s unsanitary floor for as long as 3 weeks) may not have been precise enough to realize it.

More importantly, Berg’s overall assumption that 19th century brewers would choose two-row barley if not for supply or cost barriers is uncertain. Cincinnati brewers, for example, are known to have imported barley from England and Germany at least as far back as the 1860s, so raw cost and local supply cannot by themselves explain the continued use of six-row. Later in the century, western lands like California, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Utah all proved to be excellent climates for growing two-row barley. Transportation improvements like railroads could have allowed western two-row barley to supplant its six-row brethren, similar to the enormous westward shift of hops production during the same period. Yet it did not, and the Midwest continued to be a major supplier of six-row barley to the brewing industry. Why?

The truth is that six-row barley continued to be used through the turn of the 20th century because of the adjuncts themselves. By that time, brewers considered six-row to be scientifically superior when making adjunct light lagers. The American Handy-book of the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades, which Berg cites in his article, explains the difference:

“Aside from the…the two-row barley being larger, containing in proportion more starch and less husk, there is from the standpoint of American brewing, a decided advantage to be gained by employing the six-row barley…the malts from such six-row barley are richer in diastatic and peptonizing power, so that in mashing there is not only no difficulty encountered in the inversion of the starch contained in the malt, but large amounts of starch from unmalted cereals to be taken care of very readily…” (Pg 452-453)

Berg hints at this, explaining how adjuncts turned the pitfalls of six-row barley into strengths, but something big is missing. He attributes the staying power of six-row to momentum—switching would be costly, and breweries might lose customers. Instead, he should embrace that adjuncts became an American tradition not just by economic pressure, but by choice. They embraced it as a better ingredient for their beer.

This is critical. Choice allows momentum to become tradition, and tradition is at the very heart of this matter.

Barley capture
(Source: American Handy-book of the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades (1902), pg. 450)

 

 

Appeal to tradition

Berg investigated barley’s journey through America’s brewing past to defend the place of adjuncts in American brewing. Yet, in doing so, his article pulled historical punches that he didn’t need to.

Berg could have easily argued that the Brewers Association’s notion of tradition is incomplete by folding the industrial use of non-cereal adjuncts into the broader history of adjuncts in brewing. Uncommon ingredients like spruce, oats, or molasses were at times quite common in American beer, as both core ingredients and flavor agents. Even brewing with corn dates back to the late 1600s in both Europe and North America. Limited understanding of the brewing process, inconsistent ingredient availability, and raw curiosity has kept Americans experimenting with brewing styles, ingredients, and techniques since before there was a United States to speak of.

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Anheuser-Busch taking a stand against corn in beer, 1893 (Source: appellationbeer.com)

What’s more, the introduction of cereal adjuncts to industrial brewing in the late 1800s was not some fast one pulled by macro-brewers on hapless consumers. It was seen by many as part of the scientific perfection of the brewing process, of the creation of beer that was ideal in both taste and production. Beer like this dovetailed nicely with the values of an industrializing America.

Today we hold different values, and can redefine the desired qualities of beer however we choose, but the subjectivity of this process means that adjuncts can’t be sorted into objectively good and bad categories. While we may certainly break from history and tradition to achieve our desired end, we cannot cherry pick our past to accomplish it. Neither can the B.A.

Interestingly, Berg engages the idea of tradition without juxtaposing it with another pillar of the B.A.’s definition of craft beer: innovation. Instead of discussing how the B.A. juggles the value it places on the innovative techniques and “non-traditional” ingredients that make craft beer “distinctive” with its apparent respect for traditional malts and methods, Berg projects a dogmatic quality into the B.A. that isn’t warranted or necessary. The B.A. certainly has its dogma—its muddied definition of craft, with its obvious subtext and implied targets, shows us that—but Berg attacks a perplexing adherence to Reinheitsgebot-esque tradition that isn’t really there. In fact, a common refrain from critics of cereal adjuncts (regardless of its accuracy) isn’t that they corrupt some hallowed process but that they sacrifice taste for cheaper production.

Berg’s discussion of adjuncts is a great opportunity to reaffirm them as a historically significant part of American brewing culture, not because it led to domination by corporate giants but because it was a major way that Americans made beer production their own.

That said, replacing one appeal to tradition with another would be a mistake, and require selectively interpreting America’s brewing past (and present). The reality, like it or not, is a hybrid. American brewing traditions include both the creativity and individualism that craft beer claims and the industrial consistency that macro brewers mastered over a century ago. Both approaches have their positive and negative attributes and both represent the, dare I say, distinctive potential of American beer.

As shown by its rebuttals to the B.A.’s definition, August Schell’s very existence demonstrates that these forces are not diametrically opposed but rather exist on a uniquely American spectrum.

If we can accept and appreciate this approach to brewing history, adjuncts may help carve a path forward for all segments of American beer, and a way out of tribalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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