Beer Ingredients Like Corn Syrup Have Been Controversial for 500 Years
When Bud Light aired its anti-corn syrup spot during the Super Bowl, the brand was clearly looking to stir up some debate. For mainstream drinkers like the ones who gravitate towards America’s three best-selling beers — Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite — the message pitted the Anheuser-Busch brand against its two MillerCoors-owned adversaries (read more on why that whole "corntroversy" is actually bunk here). But in the larger beer community, the commercial sparked a more nuanced discussion about ingredients in beer overall.
Yesterday, one of the biggest names in American beer — Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams — chimed in on the conversation on the brand’s website, and as you might expect from the man behind one of America’s oldest and largest craft beer brands, he had some compelling thoughts.
Forget 2019’s Super Bowl. Instead, Koch points to two other important years in the debate over beer ingredients: 1516 and 1986. The former is the year that the German Beer Purity Law, also known as the Reinheitsgebot, was introduced. As you may know, that law stipulated that only barley, hops, and water (and later yeast when it was discovered!) could be used to make beer; as a result, Koch suggests that the finger-pointing over beer ingredients has been going on for over 500 years.
As for 1986, that year has special meaning for Koch. “In 1986, I touched off a firestorm in the beer industry with radio ads exposing Heineken, Beck’s and other imported beers for using brewing adjuncts like corn and sugar to lighten the beer they shipped to the U.S.,” Koch writes. “Craft beer sales have grown every year since. On the other hand, sales of Beck’s and St. Pauli Girl have declined dramatically, and Heineken changed its recipe to remove the corn and returned to all malt brewing.”
Admittedly, Samuel Adams has something to gain by joining the debate, playing up how its flagship lager doesn’t use these kinds of ingredients. But setting aside Koch’s vested interest in this topic, his historical perspective is still enlightening.
However, funnily enough, though Koch began his argument by highlighting the Reinheitsgebot, he never gets into the larger topic that “adjunct” ingredients that fall outside of the German Beer Purity Law are seemingly hipper today than ever before. For instance, Sam Adams own New England IPA uses “white wheat” and “golden naked oats” (as is typical for the style). Certainly, these ingredients have a bit more cachet than corn syrup, but it reinforces that the discussion over which ingredients are “acceptable” for beer is ongoing and fluid — even beyond some silly Super Bowl ad.
Meanwhile, the irony in all of this is that Bud Light obviously wanted to gain favor over its two biggest competitors, but transparency over ingredients is more of a craft beer topic. Corn syrup might sound bad for Coors Light and Miller Lite, but helping to enlighten people on beer ingredients could, once again, prove bad for big beer brands in general.