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Adjunct beers aren't about flavor additives

Adjunct beer. It's such an innocuous term, yet it's one that provokes surprisingly strong — and overwhelmingly negative — opinions within the craft beer community.

At worst, the use of adjuncts in beer is seen as a cheap and undesirable shortcut used to make bland, mass-produced product for people who don't know any better. At best, the term "adjunct" is completely misunderstood and misused. Let's get to the bottom of this.

Brewing adjuncts are simply any fermentable sugars used to take the place of malted barley and wheat. The most common adjuncts are corn and rice, which are used heavily in the standard American lagers — from which craft beer is ostensibly a reaction. This is undoubtedly why adjuncts get a bad rap.

But what about that velvety pint of oatmeal stout? Or a flagship beer from your local brewery produced with local honey? That pricey and sought-after bottle of fruit lambic from Brussels? These are all adjunct brews!

Usage of the a-word in a critical manner is nearly always focused on beers of the corn-and-rice variety, but the actual wide variety of adjuncts available has — paradoxically — created confusion about what even constitutes an adjunct in the first place.

Have you ever heard someone refer to a flavored imperial stout as an "adjunct stout"? The ingredients they think constitute adjuncts — things like coffee, vanilla, and spices — are not adjuncts at all; they're simply flavoring additives. Ironically, these "adjunct" beers are often highly regarded, while true adjunct beers are treated with no such esteem.

So now that we know what adjuncts are and what they aren't, we can hopefully turn our noses up less often at the mention of their usage in brewing. But it goes even further than that. Would you take me seriously if I told you that the American adjunct lager — apparent arch-nemesis of good beer everywhere — is actually a category of beer that we should respect?

In the 19th century, pilsner was the most popular style of beer worldwide. One problem: The barley most commonly grown in the United States was of the six-row variety, rather than the two-row barley used in continental lagers like pilsner. Six-row is huskier and has a higher protein content, lending both a grainier flavor and hazier appearance to beers brewed with it instead of two-row barley.

For domestic brewers, the solution was to substitute corn, which in some cases was actually more expensive than barley. The addition of corn as an adjunct allowed for a lighter, crisper beer than an all-malt beer brewed with six-row barley. And since the protein content was lowered as well, protein-induced chill haze was decreased, leading to a clearer, more brilliant beer.

These early lagers, including what's now known as the classic American pilsner, were generously hopped, highly refreshing and complex enough to compete with their overseas counterparts. Along with California common and cream ale, these beers represent our country's oldest contributions to the art of beer brewing.

The post-Prohibition versions of these beers eventually became lighter and less flavorful as wartime rations came into play — leading to the popularization of rice as an additional adjunct in American lagers — and tastes changed to favor less assertive beers. Still, some breweries continued to produce beers in the pre-Prohibition style, such as Yuengling Traditional Lager. Full Sail Session lager and Coors' Batch 19 are also common takes on the style. There aren't too many more out there.

We should learn to be more objective instead of dismissing beers based on their usage of adjuncts. Pre-Prohibition-style lagers and the all-but-extinct classic American pilsner are fantastic when made well, and if consumers would ditch the attitude regarding adjuncts, maybe more brewers would experiment with these styles. After all, they're arguably the native beers of the United States; we should be proud of them, in the way that the Czechs, Germans, Belgians and Brits are of theirs.

— jg@saintbeat.com; @WordsWithJG.

Adjunct beers aren't about flavor additives 02/17/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 5:58pm]
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