The last few years have been fascinating in the craft beer world, especially in the category of American Lager. Suddenly, brewers who used American lager as the scapegoat for everything wrong with non-craft beer are now extolling the merits of this style (or, calling it a Mexican lager for street cred).

What changed? Who knows. Brewing tanks need to be filled, distribution trucks need to be filled, and US consumers still prefer American pale / light lager to craft by a wide margin. So I think it is more of a volume grab for craft brewers to be suddenly making light / pale lager than some long hidden love for theses beers. And that is more than OK, brewing is a business of scale, and if American lager floats your enterprise then welcome to the long storied club. But in the words of Jim Plachy of Good Beer Hunting - "What's worse, selling your brewery to AB or pretending that you have always loved the beers they made?"

I've talked at length about my love for pale lager for decades - be it US or otherwise - so I'm not revisiting that here. Instead, here is my blog from five years ago when we released the Mule. Not one thing has been edited, and that allows us to laugh at the silliness of the Brewers Association (an easy target) but to also see how quickly things change when there is perceived money to be made. Craft brewers are a funny lot, and by funny, I mean wildly opportunistic.  

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Originally Posted 7/30/13

Corn, the most vilified grain in all of American brewing, also happens to be one of the more traditional and historically important. How did this grain get its reputation? It’s all a bit of myth making by the Brewers Association and its members, who feel corn delineates craft and non-craft breweries. And it’s all bunk. Mass marketed lager is bland because that is the intent of the brewer and the desire of the consumer. Corn is just along for the ride.

So, corn is evil, or at least this was the drum that was beaten in the early days of small brewing (before “craft” was used) and continues today as a way to differentiate beers of flavor from light lagers. Adjuncts, as they are called, are usually any ingredient that is not a malted grain. This can include unmalted grains (corn, rice, wheat, barley, etc.), sugar of any type (from honey to dextrose), or other ingredients (kitchen sink, etc). But so many of these adjuncts are part of the creativity that we’ve come to expect from craft brewers, correct? So why single out corn and rice? The reality is that the “craft” beer definition is antiquated and based on outdated thinking. That size matters, or that ingredients are what determines craft, are statements that need to be retired.

Back to corn, what is it good for, besides building myths?

The history of corn in US brewing is long and deep. I’d argue it’s one of the most traditional ingredients used in American brewing. Why? Necessity. When German brewers set up shop in the US in the 1800s, the only grain available to them (six row barley, as opposed to the two row they used at home) was not ideal in making the beers they loved. Six row is higher in protein (haze inducing compounds) and tannins (from the husk, good in wine, not so much in beer).  It is also rich in enzymes, which convert starches into sugars, and also can help convert unmalted grains during the brewing process (such as corn and rice). So these evil grains of corn and rice were a godsend to these early brewers, allowing them to produce a smoother, brighter beer, which also appealed to the American palate that preferred something less malty.

The other myth with corn is that it is cheap. This was not the case for these German brewers in the US, in fact it made their beer more expensive. It is also the case with Notch. The corn is almost 2X the price of my grain, and the additional steps during brew day only increase the overall labor cost (which was my labor, so my time was donated, and you are welcome!). You can read much more from Maureen Ogle on the history of adjuncts in brewing (thanks to Nate Heck for making me aware of her writing), as well as this well penned response to the Brewers Association’s “craft” definition by Schell Brewing.

Enough myths, let’s move to the reality. Many brewers use corn to dry out big malty beers, such as double IPAs and Belgian beers. So if corn is good for drying out bigger beers, can it really have a positive impact on pale lagers? You bet, and that is what the Mule is all about. I cut my teeth brewing a light ale in a brewpub where I apprenticed. Every brewpub in that era had a very light entry level beer for those unaccustomed to beer with flavor. This light ale used a high portion of flaked maize (aka corn) and its impact on the flavor was significant. It certainly dried the beer out in the finish, but had a bit of perceived sweetness up front. The problem was that the rest of the beer was uninspired, by design, to appeal to the masses. But the impact of the corn always stuck with me, and I finally had inspiration to use it again. Since Notch is about making traditional styles that just happen to be lower in ABV, it was time to attack the much maligned American Pale Lager (aka, American Adjunct Lager or American Corn Lager).

The corn for the Mule was grown at Four Star Farms in Northfield MA, and is a heritage variety known as Rhode Island Whitecap Flint (pretty evil sounding, yes?). It came in the form of grits, which required a fairly back breaking and pain in the ass process called cereal mashing. This is where the grits need to be boiled to make the starches in the grain available to the enzymes from the malted grains. Since the brewhouse at Mercury has no cereal cooker, we had to improvise. Let’s just say it was a long day that left some scars. The grain is all US, and included premium pils malt from Rahr, along with a touch of carapils and flaked barley.  The corn mash was then incorporated in with the main mash, we had full conversion, and the rest of the brew day was normal, sort of. Also a BIG shout out to Paul Gentile of Mercury Brewing who helped me plan out and execute an overly complicated brew day.

The corn was really used to set the platform for the hops. Anyone who knows me knows my love for pale hoppy lagers, and I was excited to use two hop varieties in this beer – Crystal and Sterling. Not much bittering hop in this beer, only 5 IBUs in the first wort charge (Mt Hood) with the remaining hops at the end of boil and whirlpool, as well as dry hopping. The Sterling provides a nice spicy flavor on the tongue as the beer dries out (thank you corn) and the Crystal really comes through in the aroma to add some lemony punch.

It’s a delicate beer, but one that I envisioned for those late summer days when the heat and humidity still linger, and even late into September as we try to squeeze out the last beach days of the year.  I grew up here, so I know all about the fleeting summertime weather, and I will not be participating in making the beer taps and shelves look like October with 7 weeks of summer still ahead of us. Demand a summer beer in August! It’s a big concept, we know.

And why call it the Mule? They have a reputation for being stubborn, but that is another myth. They just happen to be deliberate; making sure their next move is well thought out. The Brewers Association, stubborn in their ways, could learn a thing or two from our sweet old girl, the Mule.

- Author: Chris