Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kinda Corny

Corn gets a bad rap these days with the constant onslaught of anti-high fructose corn syrup rhetoric, so as a native Iowan I find myself constantly compelled to defend this amazing plant. Not just because of corn's contribution to beer (which we will get to in a bit), but because it is wholly American and deserves some recognition.

While wheat and barley certainly are at the roots of beer and even civilization itself, corn was the dominant grain crop for the Western hemisphere for thousands of year before Columbus. Much different than today's corn on the cob, Maize was cultivated in the Americas long before America was even "discovered", and while it's transition to a European staple was slow, it eventually became a dominant crop in Europe and the rest of much of the world.

Fruit, Vegetable or Grain? Yep! Since the reproductive parts of the plant reside in the corn kernel, it is a fruit. Since the kernel can be dried and stored, as well as planted, it is a grain. And, since it is part of the vegetation of the plant (before maturity) and we eat it, it is also a vegetable. "Field corn that is harvested when the seeds are dry would thus be considered a grain. Sweet corn when harvested before maturity is usually considered a vegetable. It is however, actually classified by botanists as a fruit."

Why do I feel obligated to defend corn as a native from Iowa? Well, child hood memories of the dangers of walking into a cornfield and getting lost aside, Iowa is the largest producer of corn in the U.S. (sorry Nebraska and Illinois), and the U.S. produces 40% of the worlds corn which feeds not only the U.S. but people all over the world. Indeed, I once heard that Iowa produces more corn than any other single country in the world! At a high water mark, Iowa production was 14.4 million acres, or roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined (or just larger than the size of Belgium) While corn likely had it's modest, but important beginnings in what is now Mexico, the Midwest of the U.S.A has everything needed for this crop to shine.

So why does corn sugar get a bad rap? Well, because people like a scapegoat, and many nutritionists (some without any health credentials to speak of) latched on to the ominous sounding High Fructose Corn Syrup a decade or so ago, and didn't let go, blaming it for everything from obesity to cancer. And while there seems to be a general overuse of sugar (of any kind) in the pre-packaged food we eat today, the fact of different sugars is this: Glucose is the sugar in blood, and dextrose is the name given to glucose produced from corn. Biochemically they are identical. Fructose is the principal sugar in fruit, and since corn is technically a fruit, when ripened, corn starch produces fructose as well as dextrose. In comparison, sucrose is table sugar. It is a double sugar, containing one part each of glucose and fructose, chemically bound together. The human intestine quickly and efficiently split sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are absorbed into the body as single sugars. HFCS is made from corn starch. It contains roughly equivalent amounts of glucose (45 to 58%) and fructose (42 to 55%). There is no difference to your body (except that there is no need for your body to split the sugars as it is already separate in HFCS). Indeed, the American Medical Association, and The Center for Science in the Public Interest seem to agree there is no scientific evidence to suggest that HFCS have any different effect on the body than other types of sugar, but that Americans consume to much sugar in general.

And this all brings us to the beer and wine makers. We would rather turn sugar into alcohol, and there
is no better way to do this than with corn sugar (dextrose specifically). Since Dextrose is a monosaccharaide (simple sugar) it is easy for yeast to eat and is the first to ferment, making an almost 100% conversion into alcohol. For this reason, dextrose is used in many beer styles to add alcohol while keeping the body light and clean (meaning not much flavor). The homebrewer also uses dextrose to bottle condition their beers in the form of "priming sugar" since dextrose doesn't leave residual sweetness or flavor behind. While the use of corn or dextrose does go against the  Reinheitsgebot (German beer purity law), it has become common use in Belgian and American beer styles. Whole or Flaked corn is used in some European pale recipes such as bitters and ESBs, but exist in many American versions of Pilsners, Light Lagers, Blondes, Cream Ales and Pale Ales.

From making a light bodied beer to creating a dry wine or cider (or a cheap base for a distillate), corn and corn sugar will always be an important tool in the hombrewers list of ingredients, and one that has its roots in the Western hemisphere, not in the pretentious "cradle of civilization" like that of wheat, barley and grapes. So use corn, make booze, and be proud!

Kentucky Common
(Yep, its a style - Dark Cream Ale)

5 Gallon Recipe: 1.049 SG, 1.010 FG, 27 IBU, 5% ABV
3.25# Corn Grits (or Flaked Corn)
5.5#   6-Row Malt
.25#   Cara 60
.25#   Black Malt
.5 oz   Cluster @ 60min
.5 oz   Cluster @ 35min
.5 oz  Hallertau @ 20min
.5 oz  Hallertau @ 0min

Yeast is Unknown, but is probably a variant of a lager strain that ferments warm:
Wyeast 2112
It is also speculated that this beer was sour and most likely Used Lactobacillus Brevis:
Wyeast 5335

 "I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with C."
~ Children of the Corn

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