How good is Budweiser, Coors, and Miller?

I've been reading Maureen Ogle's book, Ambitious Brew, which is a history of beer in America.  It is a great book, full of interesting stories about Pabst, Busch, Schlitz and others.

One of the most fascinating discussion relates to how we Americans came to think of substituting rice and corn (or "adjuncts" as they were called in the brewing industry) for barley in beer.  

There is a common mantra that the main selling beers in the US (Bud, Miller, Coors) are "low quality", and that drinking them is akin to drinking "horse piss."  Ogle shows that this perspective - particularly the perspective the adjuncts are low quality - rose out of the "pure food movement" in late 19th century, and is as much a result of sensationalist journalism than anything else.   

Ogle writes that the "The [prohibitionist] crusaders also used the "pure food" crazy as a means of attacking brewers."  There were people like George Angell, who wrote Jungle-like reports on the nation's food supply and stirred up  (much unsubstantiated) concern about glucose, a sweetener made from corn.  Realizing that some brewers used corn (and thus somehow must use glucose) provided the "in" that many prohibitionists needed to sell sensationalized stories to the media.

The owner of a struggling Milwaukee newspaper in search of a scoop had used the moment to attack the city’s beermakers. “It is well known,” the investigating reporter informed readers, “that the brewers are a poor, struggling heaven-forsaken class” who, when faced with rising barley prices, turn to “cheaper substitutes.” As proof, the reporter listed the amounts of corn and rice recently published by several of the city’s brewers . . . Over the next few weeks, the newspaper blamed Milwaukee’s high infant mortality rate on “spurious beer” . . . A local physician informed readers that beer brewed from rice caused diarrhea, upset stomach, and brain damage.

A second local newspaper, not to be robbed of this episode of high drama, had chimed in with charges that rice and corn beer caused “temporary insanity”

There were rumors that Emil Schandein, one of the owners of what became Pabst brewing, operated his brewery as a

“secret drug store,” where a “French practical chemist” was paid a “fancy salary” to teach Schandein the secrets of chemical adulteration.

Yet, as Fredrick Pabst pointed out at the time, rice cost fifteen or twenty cents more per bushel than barley.  He argued that "[w]e are not aiming to make the cheapest beer in the market; we are trying to make the best beer."

The reality is that the new adjunct-based beers were much higher quality than what previously existed.  Ogle writes:

Beer aficionados today scorn lagers made with corn or rice as inferior to all-malt products, believing that brewers adopted the use of other grains only to save money. That was not true: It cost Adolphus Busch more to make his adjunct-based beers than his all-malt brews, and those lagers sold for higher prices than did their conventional Bavarian-style counterparts.

Nor were the beers inferior. If any one fact lies at the heart of the stunning success of Busch, Pabst, and the Uihleins, it is that by the 1880s, they were brewing some of the finest beers in the world, beers that stood up against competition with anything made in Europe. the Uihleins [owner of Schlitz] knew that: In the fall of 1880, they shipped some of their bottled Bohemian to relatives of a Schlitz employee in Zeitz, a city in north central Germany. The recipients took the beer to a local chemist for analysis. The man expressed astonishment at its purity. Its flavor and character, he reported, compared with the finest Bohemian lagers.

The sole use of American barley produced cloudy beers that had short shelf lives.  Ogle documents how the use of adjuncts increased the clarity, purity, consistency, and shelf life of the beer. 

Just a little something to keep in mind as you're selecting which beverages to imbibe over the 4th of July holiday . . .