Whenever the word “corn” is mentioned among craft beer enthusiasts, you can be certain that everything from jest to judgment shall soon follow, for you can’t spell “scorn” without “corn.” But as a red-blooded American of strong Cherokee Indian heritage, it’s extremely tough for me to show anything but adoration for the sacred plant, although I do understand where the aversion comes from.
The problem I have is that the venom has been unfairly directed towards the corn itself, the innocent party at hand. So please allow me to retort.
It is believed that corn, at least in the western hemisphere, has fed humans for most of our history. Archeologists have discovered fossilized corn cobs in South America that date back to 8000 BC, which places cultivated corn at the beginning of human agriculture. In fact, corn, or maize as the Native American Indian called it, was a cultural staple for thousands of years and easily one of the most significant crop cultivations in human history.
When it came to the indigenous American diet, corn was eaten year-round at nearly every meal due to its ability to be preserved during the cold winter months. Often dried, kernels were rehydrated and used in cornmeal, breads, puddings and succotash, all providing a significant part of their total caloric intake. And if you haven’t noticed, this mass consumption of corn products in America hasn’t changed one bit. Today, corn is used in a majority of processed foods including sodas, ketchups, cereals and breads, not to mention most of the candies, cakes and snacks we manufacture. But that’s just the beginning. Most of the meat we buy is farm raised on a corn-fed diet and even the vegetables we eat are often sprayed with corn based pesticides. In fact, if you were to analyze a strand of hair of an average American’s head, you’d find nearly 80% of the carbon chains would be derived from corn-based carbons. If the old adage of “we are what we eat” rings true, Americans literally are made of corn and always have been.
As if this wasn’t enough reason to proclaim Americans as “Children of the Corn,” science believes that the domesticated corn plant as we know it is solely an invention of mankind, developed and cultivated into one of the most remarkable breeding achievements in agricultural history. The journey from a wild grass called Teosinte into the amazingly useful plant we have today has taken thousands of years and millions of farmers. Corn is so far evolved from its origins that it is now unable to grow naturally in the wild on its own. Modern corn simply cannot exist without humans to plant, protect and harvest it, which is about as symbiotic a relationship as you can get between plant and man.
Aside from it being a huge part of our diet (and when in the form of high fructose corn syrup, a very dangerous part) corn’s contributions to humanity stretch far beyond its delicious, edible kernels. Modern maize is used to make everything from plastics to chemicals, explosives to pharmaceuticals, pesticides to biofuels and most importantly, at least to the readers of this magazine, BEER! But not craft beer, just that fizzy, yellow, crappy stuff, right?
Well, Europeans weren’t aware of corn’s existence until Columbus arrived in the Americas, which is why corn is not covered in the Reinheitsgebot, the nearly 500 year-old German purity law that declares a beer to be made from only water, barley and hops. Genuine and noble by its nature, the Reinheitsgebot was eventually found to be outdated and therefore, replaced by the Provisional German Beer Laws which allowed for yeast, wheat and cane sugar to be used in beer production. Again, genuine and noble in its nature but also very European, as Americans were surely fermenting and enjoying corn based beers and whiskeys by this time, and without the limitations of rule and process.
Then came some of the darkest times in American history, the ratification of the 18th Amendment of our Constitution, better known as Prohibition. Sparing the history lesson, let’s just say that few “artisanal” brewers came out on the other side in 1933. What we were left with was a handful of industrial breweries that focused on quantity over quality. They slowly choked out their competition and by 1983, America had only fifty-one brewing companies operating eighty breweries with the top six companies responsible for over 90% of US beer production. This began the slow death of American beer which coincided with the introduction of the mega advertising campaigns that made us believe low-calorie and often flavorless light lagers were our beer of choice. This was because corn and rice were used in excess due to their cheap cost and agricultural availability. Before long, Europeans were saying “American beer was like having sex in a canoe… it’s fucking close to water”.
Thankfully, like any other duality in life, the Yin of beer’s dark days had to have a Yang. That Yang was the American craft beer revolution, which catapulted us into an era where beer was returned to an artisanal product that we could finally take pride in. This newfound pride made us look to our past, realizing what we used to accept as beer was nothing more than fizzy yellow crap! “NO MORE,” we screamed, “DEATH BE TO CORN!”
As a community, that became our mantra. We looked down our pint glasses at corn with disgust. Even the video “I Am a Craft Brewer”, which I not only loved but was made by folks I became friends with while filming Beeradelphia, mentions with pride that they don’t use corn or rice in their beer, as if any single ingredient has the ability to ruin a beer. Ingredients don’t make beer, people do. Local Flying Fish brewer, Casey Hughes, debunked that myth by brewing Exit 16, a wild rice IPA which contains wild, brown and white rice in the grain bill. This not only dried out the beer allowing the hops to shine through but also smoothed out the 8% ABV, making it quite an easy-drinking double IPA.
In my opinion, beer is, and always will be, an artistic expression of the brewer. I don’t blame corn for the lackluster beers of the industrial breweries, just as I wouldn’t blame white flour for a shitty piece of birthday cake. I personally use corn when homebrewing my cream ale and I know many brewers who use corn as their adjunct of choice because it is consistent in its quality and produces a wide range of fermentable sugars and dextrins, lending itself to sweeter styles of beer since it produces alcohol but very little flavor.
So I ask you craft beer lover, to re-evaluate your stand on corn. The very essence of American craft beer is innovation and invention, so why should we shun and punish a crop that is as American as apple pie? Instead, I challenge the brewing community to prove that it is not the use of corn that creates unimaginative beers but rather the unimaginative brewers. We’ll never get out of this “maize,” as we are and always will be children of the corn. So why not brew a “Malachi Red Ale” or an “Isaac IPA?” I’d be more than happy to drink it with pride alongside he who walks behind the rows!