Craft brewers hated adjunct beers and told everyone willing to listen. They derided beers made with rice and corn, claiming they cheapened the industrial lagers they were used in. Opposition to adjuncts helped define an early era of craft beer. Then that all changed.
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Small brewers started to tire of brewing the same brown ales and wheat beers so they started to get creative in the brewhouse. At first, they added new fermentables, such as maple syrup, pumpkin, and honey to their beers. Then they went wild, adding anything and everything in the so-called era of Extreme Beer.
Having spent the better part of a decade experimenting and pushing the brewing envelope, small brewers of today are more focused in their use of adjuncts even as they add ingredients such as donuts and childrens’ cereals to the mix. We spoke with Steve Parkes, owner of the American Brewers Guild brewing school and Drop In Brewing in Middlebury, Vermont, for his advice on best practices in considering and employing adjuncts.
“In the early days of craft brewing, we were brewing beers with 100-percent malt,” says Parkes. “When all the big guys were brewing brands with rice and corn, there was a movement to go back to mirror a more European model of 100-percent malt based beers. Now at some point in our history, it became acceptable to experiment with adjuncts again, with brewers discovering the benefits that they bring.”
Parkes notes that after small brewers experimented with some basic adjuncts, they started to get more creative, both for their own curiosity and for business reasons. “The market has gotten so much more crowded, particularly with talk about reaching saturation point, the ability to differentiate yourself from other beers on the shelves and from the crowd really became more of a marketing lead thing. And I think that’s important, too.”
After years of experimentation, Parkes is seeing his students and fellow brewers contemplate more traditional adjuncts, including rice and corn, and getting smarter about the wilder ingredients they use. His first piece of advice: ask your fellow brewers for help. As creative as small brewers can be, Parkes notes that with more than 9000 breweries operating, the chances that you are the first to brew with an ingredient is exceedingly small.
“Talk to other brewers,” he counsels. “Has anyone else made a beer with this particular ingredient? Unless you’ve created something from scratch, and no one else has thought of it before, it seems highly unlikely in this day and age. Talk to somebody who has used that ingredient before.”
Parkes also recommends that brewers talk to ingredient suppliers about best practices in using their products. He points to the use of fruit in beers, noting that results once were inconsistent to the variable quality of the ingredient but that developments have largely changed this, including with aseptic fruit purees. “There’s a tremendous amount of technical support available from suppliers,” Parkes says. “They know how to use the ingredients that they’re making and can give really good advice. They’ve done trials at the large breweries and learned what it takes and then can give you good advice as well. There’s lots of information available, a lot of technical information available these days. And the suppliers to the brewing industry have significantly upped their game in the last five years or so. They’re now a very reliable resource when it comes to learning how to use their products. It was a little bit more guesswork in the past.”
When it comes to working with adjuncts, Parkes advises brewers to have a clear idea of what they want the ingredient to contribute to the final beer. “I think having a clear idea of what you want the flavor to be so it shouldn’t be a surprise to you when you first taste it,” he says. “Whatever ingredient you’re adding, ask what benefit is it bringing? If you’re adding something to increase body and mouthfeel, then it better do that. If you’re adding something to help with the foam, then it should do that.”
With all of the unusual ingredients that brewers have been using in beers, Parkes also advises brewers to consider whether the adjunct is a known allergen, safe in the manner employed, or even legal to use in a consumable product.
“Be aware of what you’re using is the starting point,” Parkes advises. “Know whether it’s safe or not. There’s a lot of information available to you. But the TTB at the end of the day, if you are making a product that contains any unusual ingredient and you’re packaging it and selling it, then you are obliged to obtain a certificate of label approval from the TTB for that product. And you’re mandated to do an accompanying statement of process if you’re using anything other than malted, barley, hops, yeast, and water, with a couple of exceptions.”
Parkes notes that the Food and Drug Administration may become more involved in the labeling of beer, which is already happening in Europe. While noting a beer is brewed with a known allergen, such as peanuts, is obvious, it may be less clear for ingredients such as lactose. “If you’re thinking of brewing a beer with an adjunct, go check whether it’s on a list of known allergens,” he says. “Don’t put something in your beer if you don’t know what it is. I used to joke about finding something growing in the parking lot and adding that to the beer. Don’t do that. Sensible advice for anybody who’s making any kind of food product is to understand what it is that you’re putting in there.”
Parkes also advises that brewers thoroughly research any adjunct they’re considering that they’ve not familiar with. “If you’re adding an adjunct that you’ve not heard of before, or have never worked with before, there’s a possibility that it’s not a legal additive,” he says. “There are some spices and herbs that are kind of poisonous if you’re not careful. Don’t be the first one to kill someone with a toadstool beer. You’ve got to be careful when you’re out there foraging in the woods. Is this going to hurt people? There was a recent one involving Brazilian hardwood commonly that brewers were adding to beer because it tasted like coconuts and vanilla. And it turns out that it’s not legal to add to beer.”
“You certainly don’t want to upset the stomach of your customers or risk poisoning them,” he concludes. “So just do your due diligence on your ingredient choices.”