Traditional. It's an interesting word. The Oxford Dictionary defines traditional as “Habitually done, used, or found.” It's a familiar word, too. We're surrounded by traditions passed down from one generation to the next. Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day? It's traditional. Why do children dress up as ghosts and pirates on Halloween and go door-to-door asking for candy? It's traditional. Of course, one could research the history of these traditions and come up with a plausible answer to why this is traditional, but let's face it: we're lazy. We're not spending our precious leisure time looking up the whys to things that don't particularly matter to us. It's Thanksgiving. We're eating turkey.
Eventually, however, a time comes when the answer does matter to you. It may be because the reasons behind the tradition simply don't ring true, or perhaps because someone derogatorily calls you non-traditional.
David Berg is the brewmaster of August Schell Brewing Company.
The beer industry is an amazing one. I started brewing professionally 21 years ago after an eight-year stint in the avionics business, and I've never looked back. Don't get me wrong, I love engineering. What I didn't love was the politics. Brewing was the ultimate culmination of what I loved about engineering—math, science, the ability to have a vision of what you want something to be, and then making it happen—with none of the politics. It's a naive view in retrospect, but nevertheless one I had for many years.
The very act of making beer is deeply steeped in tradition. So much so that if you were inventing beer today, there's not a chance you'd come up with the same process. Consider this: you have a farmer grow barley, then he harvests it and sends it to a maltster, who germinates the barley and then arrests the process. The maltster dries the barley and sends it to a brewer. The brewer then tricks this seed into thinking it needs to grow, and creates a sugary liquid. This liquid is cooled, yeast is added, and some time later, we get beer.
You'd be better off growing barley, adding an enzyme like Beano, and fermenting the outcome. Skip the middleman. It wouldn't be the beer that we know and love, but it would work.
Thus begins the dichotomy. When is tradition really important to the process itself versus when is tradition simply the way a problem was solved ages ago? More importantly, have advances in the science and technology of brewing beer made those traditions obsolete? To answer either of the questions, you need to look at the problem from both a scientific and historic perspective.
But first, you need to understand the problem, and then look at what a brewer in those early days had at his disposal to solve the problem. The goal was simple, and it’s the same today as it was 1000 years ago: to make good beer.
While there are many traditions in brewing I could use as examples, I’d like to focus on adjuncts. Oddly, they somehow remain one of the most controversial topics in brewing today. Mention adjuncts in a beer forum or on social media, and watch the feathers fly. The fact that people continue to look down on brewing adjuncts in a world where information can be easily found on the internet is actually quite astounding. It’s easier, I suppose, to continue believing the myths surrounding adjuncts than actually researching the reasons for their use.
In 2012, the Brewer's Association released what was essentially a blacklist. It was a list of domestic non-craft brewers, which subsequently became referred to as “faux craft.” It wasn't totally unanticipated. Indeed, the BA had been beating the small/independent/traditional drum for a number of years. It probably made some strange kind of sense that beer drinkers didn't really understand their definition of a craft brewer. The natural instinct to drive their point home was to actually name names. This, unfortunately, is what they chose to do, in spite of history and science:
Take a look at the “traditional column.” Everyone that’s disqualified as being non-traditional is disqualified because they use adjuncts. Included in this list as non-traditional are three of the oldest family-owned breweries in the U.S.: August Schell Brewing (established 1860), Straub Brewery (established 1872) , and D.G. Yuengling and Sons (established 1829). Family-owned breweries that have been around for 152, 140, and 183 years respectively are being called out as non-traditional by an organization that’s been around since 1983 (or 2005, depending on how you’re keeping score at home).
I'm not just some guy off the street. I've worked at August Schell since 2006. So, of course, I have a vested interest in this discussion. I won’t get into the obvious anguish these families endured seeing their names on a blacklist. And that’s just it: it was literally their names. Back in the old days, we didn’t have fanciful brewery naming techniques. You named the brewery after the owner.
The internet is a big place, which means you can read the rebuttals there. To me, though, the most offensive part of the blacklist was a total dismissal of science and history—a dismissal that continues today. My interest is in history and science rather than presenting a good marketing story. History is way more interesting than any story I can invent, and when the science supports the history? Well, you can decide for yourself.
Thus, we're back to brewing traditions which, for the most part, are cultural. But which brewing culture? Belgian? British? German? Is it not possible or even probable that there is a fourth traditional brewing culture: American?
Cultivated barley is not indigenous to the United States. It was introduced to the eastern coast by English, Dutch, and French traders early during the settlement. In addition, the 17th century Spanish mission movement introduced it into Mexico and the American southwest. (1)
As anyone with a minor understanding of agricultural products realizes, a crop that grows well in one region—or continent, for that matter—may not grow as well when introduced to another. The two-row barley the English brought to the East Coast wasn’t suited to the humid summers of the New World. It wasn’t until barley fields moved into western New York that success was found, and it was found with six-row barley varieties from Europe. The dominance of six-row barley began, and then flourished as the fields moved westward into the Corn Belt.
Before we go any further, it would be wise to look at the differences between two-row and six-row barley. In 1948, Jean De Clerck published his seminal two-volume set Text Book for Brewing. De Clerck, one of the most influential brewing scientists in history, was the head of the brewing program at the famous Belgian brewing school at the University of Leuven. In Text Book for Brewing. De Clerck talks about the preference for two-row barley in brewing.
The most obvious difference between the varieties is spelled out in the name: two-row has two rows of kernels when viewed down the axis, while six-row has, you guessed it, six rows. Beyond the visual, however, the two varieties also have some important differences. Keep in mind that barley breeding programs today have made these differences smaller. But we’re looking at historical differences.
In a nutshell, six-row barley has
- Less extract (due to kernel size and uniformity)
- Higher protein
- Higher enzymes
- Higher husk content (thinner kernels mean more husk)
So what, traditionally, led brewers to prefer two-row? I’m no historian, but if I was hanging around in the 1800s (or earlier, for that matter), I’d be looking at the extract. If I can get 1-2% more extract for the same amount of money, I don’t need to think really hard about which way to go. As much as we hate to admit it, brewing is a business. If you can spend the same money to make more beer of the same quality, why wouldn’t you do it? Just because of tradition? Therefore, the move to two-row probably had some monetary motive attached to it. I buy less malt and make the same amount of beer. That’s good business.
Thus, we make a global proclamation that two-row barley is superior for brewing, and six-row barley is better left for animal feed. It’s a great thing. Beer drinkers don’t need to know the monetary implications. It simply becomes accepted.
Until, that is, you live in an area where two-row barley doesn’t grow well. Welcome to the very young USA. You still have to make beer, right? And you still want to make good beer. (Might as well get this out of the way right now: I don’t believe any brewer has ever set out to make bad beer. Ever. There may have been some questionable changes to process that disregarded science, but it was a lack of knowledge, rather than a desire to cheat the beer drinker, that led to chaos.) So here you find yourself, a brewer in the United States in the 1800s. The country is growing, and you’ve moved to this New World to make your fortune. You brewed in your home country. You know how to make good beer. The advertisements were being transferred back to Europe—they needed brewers, and you answered the call. If only it was that easy.
The protein, enzyme, and husks of the better-growing six-row barley were waiting. They were waiting to throw you a left hook you never saw coming, because you never had to deal with it. They were going to make your beer short-lived and cloudy (due to the high protein/nitrogen content), and over-attenuated (due to the high enzymatic potential). You were still going to make beer you were proud of, but you knew it could be better. That’s what brewers do. They keep pushing to make beer better.
Bohemian-born Anton Schwarz immigrated to the United States in 1868. Schwarz had studied brewing science under Karl Balling at Prague Polytechnic, which no doubt influenced his advocacy for the use of adjuncts. While it’s unlikely the 39-year-old Schwarz realized at the time the magnitude of the part he was to play in shaping American brewing, it’s safe to say his approaches to brewing in the New World revolutionized the industry. Indeed, there is probably no person more important than Schwarz with respect to the application of science-based brewing in the United States.
Schwarz first took a job writing technical articles for The American Brewer, the only brewing trade publication at the time. It was there he developed and promoted the idea of cereal mashing. The American Handy-Book of Brewing published in 1902 has this to say about him:
“It was Anton Schwarz who first advised the employment of rice and subsequently Indian corn, which was so abundant in this country. The stubborn perseverance with which he sought to convert the conservative brewers to his ideas and finally in so doing and, last, not least the discovery of suitable methods for scientifically applying them, entitle him to be called the founder of raw cereal brewing in the United States.” (2)
Just why was Schwarz so hell-bent on using adjuncts to make beer? There are a number of reasons, actually, and the one mentioned most often by opponents is cost. Indeed, there are monetary incentives to use unmalted cereal grains in brewing. It was perhaps this factor that led those conservative brewers to listen to Schwarz. It’s unlikely that this was Schwarz’s driving force, however. He was simply a scientist doing his job, which means applying science to find a solution to a problem that existed.
Yeast doesn’t care where its sugar source comes from. It has a preference for the types of sugar it can and will use, but it’s basically going to create alcohol and carbon dioxide as by-products to its life cycle regardless of whether the sugar is from malted barley, corn, rice, fruits, etc. By combining the now-dominant six-row barley with corn or rice in a cereal mash, you add starch without adding additional protein. The end result is that the excess protein contained in the barley is essentially diluted, thus creating a more biologically stable finished beer. The absence of husks on corn or rice doesn’t present a problem with lautering—the barley has higher husk content, which is a benefit when using an adjunct with no husk. The excess diastatic enzymes contained in the barley are easily able to convert both the starches in the barley and adjunct into sugars. With one elegant solution, Schwarz fixed all the problems associated with the type of barley that was best suited to grow well in the United States.
Along with the added advantage of a lower cost, there was another factor in the creation of this new method of brewing beer in the U.S. that can’t be emphasized enough: people liked the beer. It was pale in color, crystal clear, and effervescent. The lighter body was more suited to the tastes of the growing population. Once again, brewing is a business and brewers make beer people want to buy if they wish to remain in business. American brewing history is littered with examples of brewers that either didn’t realize this, or realized it too late.
As the settlement of the United States continued westward, another shift occurred. Corn and soybean production would eventually oust most of the barley fields in the Midwest, while the western states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington would prove to have a good climate for growing barley. This time, however, the climate would better suit the two-row variety.
It made sense for breweries opening in the western United States to use their local two-row, especially once malt houses were built in that region. Breweries often had their own malt houses, as we at August Schell had at one time. Eventually, these localized malting facilities disappeared as brewers realized they were in the business of making beer, and maltsters provided enough malt to go around.
Now that brewers had a choice to use two-row instead of six-row, why not use the malt with better extract potential? Tradition certainly has something to do with that decision. Why would you change something that was successful? Costs certainly play into it as well. To this day, most of the large malting facilities exist in the Midwest. From an economic standpoint, it’s pretty simple: it’s cheaper to ship malt (which has a lower moisture content, thus a lower weight per bushel) than it is to ship barley. Any savings that you achieved with better extract was eliminated—and probably exceeded—by the inherent costs of making barley into malted barley.
The acreage of six-row is declining, however, and it’s now possible (depending on the variety and where it’s grown, of course) to buy two-row cheaper than six-row. But can you still make adjuncts beers with domestic two-row barley? Yes, you can. Once again, the question of “why” is easily answered: because people like it.
Truth be told, the differences in domestic six-row and two-row have narrowed over the years. In fact, domestic two-row has more in common now with domestic six-row than it does with two-row from Europe. Domestically, the protein levels and diastatic power (enzymes) in two-row have increased in the 21 years I’ve been brewing professionally. The rise of small brewers could change this. The barley breeding program in the U.S. is second to none. Small brewers now have a voice in places like the American Malting Barley Association, and it’s conceivable they have enough power to demand specific characteristics in barley more suited to the all-malt beers they’re making. The changes will be a result of the desire to make a more stable beer and a more controllable mash. It will be the result of brewers wanting more control of the characteristics of the malt, rather than the malt itself. It will be the result of brewers solving problems with their beer, as they have always done.
Accusations of being non-traditional or using “cheap” ingredients are marketing ploys. Claims of being traditional are likewise. They don’t talk about the taste of the beer in the glass. They talk about ingredients or processes that, quite frankly, most beer drinkers don’t think or care about. They’re also not new. Brewers that use rice as an adjunct have long denigrated those that use corn. Those that use only malted barley denigrate those that use adjuncts. We don’t learn from our past, thus we are condemned to repeat it. During that time, we forget the most important aspect of beer: the consumer. The person that pays their hard-earned money for the beer you made.
The debate about craft and independence will rage on. But it’s time we put the myths about adjunct brewing to bed. Our focus as brewers and beer lovers should be on the end result, not on the types of ingredients or traditions. Is the beer good? Can it be better? Those are the most important questions moving forward. They were also the most important questions in the past. It’s unfortunate we’ve taken a detour to argue about things that don’t answer either of them.
(1) G.A. Wiebe, "Introduction of Barley into the New World," in Barley: Origin, Botany, Culture, Winterhardiness, Genetics, Utilization, Pests, Agricultural Handbook No. 38 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Washington, D.C., 1968), pp. 2-8.