The four main ingredients in beer are water, barley, hops, and yeast. Those four things have allowed for the creation of a plethora of flavors. However, some people wanted different flavors or textures. Other folks had different crops available to them. Both of these things changed what they used in the beer. These changes are what led to the use of adjuncts in beer.
Simply put an adjunct is anything other than barley that contributes starch to the beer. More simply? Anything adding sugar that will get fermented by the yeast. The most common are corn, rice, wheat, oat, and rye. To find the dividing line of what is an adjunct we have to go back to 1516 when the Reinheitsgebot defined beer as water, hops, and barley. You can read one of my first posts to learn more about the Reinheitsgebot, but for now all you need to know is it set the precedent for what is, and is not, an adjunct. Let’s take a closer look at the big five.
Rice sweetens the taste, lightens the mouthfeel, and boosts the ABV of the end product. This helps drive down the calorie content in those “Light” branded beers. It’s not easier or cheaper to work with than barley though. It’s more complex to use in the brewhouse due to the need for a cereal cooker. Many Asian breweries also use rice in their beers due to their cultural history. The few American craft breweries that have used it in their beers used it to emulate those Asian beers. Despite those two things, rice is still mainly used in Budweiser. Just how much rice does AB-InBev use? Enough to make it the largest consumer of rice in America. Damn.
The use of corn in beer is more widely accepted than rice but still used in the largest quantities by Miller, which prefers corn over rice. Corn is cheaper than barley and, like rice, helps to sweeten and lighten the beer. Also like rice it has to get cooked in a cereal cooker to get the most use out of it in beer. Though the flaked corn you see to the left is not usually what’s used. Both Miller and craft breweries are more apt to use corn syrup since it’s easier to work with. Some corn is also common in recipes for cream ales.
Edit: I finished this post a month ago, but right now I’m reading Jeff Sparrow’s Wild Brews and in it he mentions that Rodenbach uses up to 20% maize in their red beer, Liefman’s uses up to 10% in it’s brown, and Morte Subite uses up to 10% in its Lambic.
Rice and corn are relatively uncommon in craft beer, but wheat is the most common adjunct for craft brewers. It’s used in an incredible amount styles from American wheat or dunkelweizen (German for dark wheat) to berliner weisse, gose, and my personal favorite style with wheat, lambic. What wheat adds to all these styles is a cloudy haze, weight to the body, and a stable head of foam. Wheat’s flavor is lighter than barley so it can help lighten up a beer, but to a lesser extent than corn or rice.
These get used sparingly in a few styles to add a silky smooth yet weighted body to many styles. Oats are found in stouts and porters, especially English version of those two styles. Though I have had one Oatmeal IPA from New Belgium and I’d imagine other adventurous home or craft brewers have tried injecting oats into other styles.
Rye is the least common of all the adjuncts in this list. Its main purpose is adding a spicy flavor. It can also add some orange color to the beer. I’ve found that rye is a love it or leave it type of ingredient for both brewers and drinkers. If you’re a fan of rye whiskey or bourbon you’ll very likely love rye beers.
Something to ponder with adjuncts is their role in craft beer is or should be. The Brewer’s Association decided to revise its position on adjuncts in 2014 by changing the Traditional section of its definition to:
A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.
Prior to early 2014 the Traditional section read:
A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50 percent of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.
The effect of removing the emphasis on malt allowed Yuengling to become a “Craft Brewer.” It allowed Yuengling to become the largest craft brewer in America bumping Boston Beer from that spot. This helped the market share of craft beer to grow significantly. In the end, I don’t think it matters too much. Yuengling beer is far more barley based than Budweiser or Miller Lite and should’ve been a “Craft Brewer” from the get go
What’s It All Mean?
Some craft beer enthusiasts view the word “adjunct” with dismay. This is the unfortunate result of AB-InBev, Miller, and Coors making the decision to use high levels of rice and corn resulting in an inferior beer. Then people assume that because one adjunct beer is bad it means all adjuncts are bad. We can’t blame that on anyone but ourselves, and I hope I’ve helped dispel those notions and educate folks about adjuncts.