Pre-Prohibition Lager

by Greg Kitsock

Originally published in Barlyecorn, Bay Schooner section, November 1995, Vol. #5, Vol. #7.

Cornflakes in Your Beer?

Mention the word "corn" at a gathering of zealous homebrewers, and you're liable to get your mouth washed out with hop extract. But adjuncts do have a legitimate place in the history of American brewing. a crowd of beer lovers, gathered for a tasting at the Museum of Natural History, learned that an American adjunct brew need not taste like a Bud or Miller.

The occasion was week four of the Smithsonian Institution's "American Craft Beer" series, a presentation devoted to American specialty beers.

The guest speaker was Thomas Cizauskas, formerly of Oxford Brewing Company, and soon to become brewer at Wallaby's, a brewpub recently opened in suburban Cleveland. In lecturing on beer as "liquid history", Cizauskas largely eschewed the new wave fruit and chili beers [with two exceptions] and concentrated on classical styles such as cream ale and steam beer.

[To open his presentation, Cizauskas chose Leibotschaner Cream Ale, a repeat Gold Medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival, brewed by the Lion Brewery of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.]

The third specimen was a beer innocuously labeled "Richmond Lager." The clear golden liquid was smoothly drinkable, with a fresh, fragrant hop bouquet but enough residual sugars to balance the hop bitterness. Cizauskas introduced the beer as typical of the lagers brewed in America before prohibition.

There was a catch: Richmond Lager was actually a home-brew, made especially for the Smithsonian tasting by award-winning amateur brewer [Homebrewer of the Year, 1995] Rhett Rebold of Burke, VA.

In recreating the style, Rebold followed a recipe by George Fix that had appeared in Brewing Techniques magazine. Richmond lager (5.9% ABV, 1060 OG) is made from a grist consisting of 78% six-row barley, 22% flaked maize. It's hopped partly with European Hallertau hops and Northern Brewer varieties. Bitterness is between 32 and 34 IBUs. the beer undergoes a primary fermentation of 1-1/2 weeks, followed by 3-1/2 to 4 weeks of lagering. Rebold then filters at five microns to remove yeast but leave behind the proteins necessary for a thick, creamy head.

In the nineteenth century, explained Cizauskas, the only barley available to American brewers was the native six-row strain. It grew more heartily than the European two-row variety and had plenty of natural enzymes for starch conversion. On the negative side, it lent a harsh, astringent quality to the beer. One way to smooth out the flavor was to add a neutral-tasting fermentable like corn, then hop liberally with a blend of German and domestic hops.

Unfortunately, corn turned out to be "an accountant's dream," continued Cizauskas. Pound for pound, it was much cheaper than barley, and the percentage "increased, increased, and increased until it got to be 50% or more" in the post-Repeal era. [Rice is also be used to dilute the grist.]

A few American breweries, like the Brooklyn-based Rheingold, Piel's, and Trommer's, [in Cleveland: Leisey's, Standard, and Pilsener Brewing companies] turned out a gutsier, pre-Prohibition style well into the 1950's. However, this so-called "Bushwick" lager passed into history with its makers.

Modern craft breweries flaunt the Reinheitsgebot [German Beer Purity code] as a badge of honor and have shown little if any desire to experiment with adjuncts.

This, Rebold believes, is regrettable. "I wasn't too excited about making this at first, because I generally brew British or German-style beers," admits Rebold, who won best of show for his Helles at last June's AHA [American Homebrew Association] convention. But he was pleased with the results. "This is something I will try again. The style deserves a renaissance."

[Cizauskas completed his presentation with offerings from several other American craft breweries, including two flavored beers. One was a smoked, or Rauchbier from Otter Creek Brewery in Vermont. The second was a kiwi and ginger spiced ale, named Auckland Ale, from Wallaby's Grille and Brewpub in Westlake, Ohio.

Auckland Ale, crafted by Wallaby's brewery manager, Joseph Marunowski, and assistant brewer, Brad Unruh, surprised many in attendance. Whereas expectations had been for a sweet beer, the golden-hued ale was firm of body, tart from the kiwi fruit, and spicy and dry from the ginger.]

Comments within [brackets] added by Cizauskas.
Cizauskas himself would commercially brew beer with corn as an ingredient, to success, at the Manayunk Brewing Company.