It’s rare that you hear of corn being used in a craft beer. Big Brew uses it a lot — mainly to lighten the color of the beer — but us little guys don’t use it all that often. It had been used a lot during ancient times, but it’s generally fallen by the wayside in favor of our more traditional barleys, wheat, and pilsners.
However, we’ve recently charged each department in production — brewing, packaging, and cellaring, and the lab — with devising their own recipes, and, when the cellarmen put their heads together, they decided to use blue corn as a specialty malt.
When they designed Maize Haze, no one really knew what was going to happen. We all knew that using blue corn in a beer could be done, but we were about to find out if it should be done.
Long story short… yeah. Using blue corn in a beer is totally a thing that should be done, even if we had no idea how to do it going in.
A little backstory: when our Head Chef and Soda Ops JP Thomas isn’t head cheffing or soda opping, he works in production as a cellarman. Furthermore, Maize Haze was originally designed by him, Mike, and Kevin — Mike is currently a stay-at-home papa, and Kevin has moved to Brewer. Tony, originally on packaging, has moved to cellarman, and we’ve hired Brad in the meantime. So, of the guys who originally designed the beer, only JP is still currently working in the cellar, but Tony and Brad have had a decent amount of input into the later developments of the beer.
“I wanted to do an ancient grain beer,” he tells us. “I didn’t really care which grain — quinoa, or smelt, or blue corn — but I wanted an ancient grain to go with the food aspect.”
The guys eventually decided on blue corn, even though none of them had ever really tried one before.
“I never had a blue corn beer,” JP stresses, “but that’s why we wanted to do it. We didn’t know what we’d get out of it. Maybe we’d get some color, maybe we’d get some unique flavors out of it, but we figured blue corn would be something fun and different.”
Generally, corn is used as a simple sugar source for beer. It’s cheap, it’s abundant, and it’s frequently used by Big Brew because of those two facts. Furthermore, whatever flavors come from corn usually go unnoticed: as corn syrup is an ingredient in just about everything, we’re sort of deadened to whatever flavors it might have.
“For the most part, corn is used as ‘filler’,” says Director of Brewing Operations Jimmy Valm. “It’s a cheap source of sugar to easily get the alcohol content one wants for a beer, but allows one to brew a beer with a very mild flavor. Of course, though, this isn’t what we were after, we wanted a beer with loads of flavor, and where that distinct blue corn note was still part of the overall flavor characteristics.”
So, we decided on blue corn. Awesome. Unfortunately, none of us had any earthly idea as to how we were going to find any. Have you ever seen blue corn… anywhere at all? It’s not as if you can find it in the produce section at Acme. And, at 35% of the grain bill, it was kind of essential that we find it.
“Since blue corn isn’t a common brewing ingredient,” says Head Brewer Brian Hink, “I knew that we’d need to source it outside our usual supplier, BSG. But where to get 250 pounds of blue corn? Luckily our awesome friends over at Rabbit Hill have connections all over the tri-state area in the agricultural world, so back in June I started working with Hillary to help find us some blue corn. She’s a rockstar and not only found us a great supplier, but did all the leg work.”
Seriously, Hillary is a freakin’ rockstar. Our previous interactions with Rabbit Hill — particularly with Three Plows — have been uniformly awesome experiences. They love what they do over at Rabbit Hill, and whenever we come to them with a project, they always jump into it feet first. Because of that, we were thrilled to get the other 65% of the grain bill from them, as well.
“Since we were using raw, unmalted blue corn,” Brian says, “I wanted to make sure we had a good conversion from starch to sugar while mashing, so I wanted to use 6-Row barley — which has a higher diastatic power to help compensate for the corn’s lack of any DP instead of the more traditional 2-Row barley.”
Alright. We got the corn. …what next…? Before you can brew with a grain, you’ve got to mill it down, and… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. We didn’t even know if our mill could break it down.
“If you’ve never seen dried blue corn,” Jimmy says, “it comes as these kernels that are much larger and much harder than barley or wheat, so we had to trial it a bit on our mill so we got the right crush without breaking the mill! Luckily we didn’t.”
Yeah, Hank probably would have been a little ticked off if we broke the mill grinding an experimental grain that we had no idea of how it would eventually brew. Thankfully, we were successful, but there were still some questions up in the air, like… “Hey. Is this beer going to come out some weird blue color?”
“When we were brewing it,” Jimmy says, “it had this distinctive blue hue, and as it fermented that changed to a pinkish purple, but by the time it was all done it had the normal straw-like color. It was a bit disappointing that it wasn’t blue anymore, but I’m glad it didn’t end up some weird color that is just off-putting — your first taste of a beer is with your eyes, after all.”
Brad had a chance to peep in on the brewing process, and he was a little surprised at the blue color, as well.
“I was here when Andrew was brewing it,” he says. “It picked up a really cool color when he was brewing it. Unfortunately, a lot of that dropped out.”
As for the style of the beer, the guys were really at loggerheads for a while. Hopheads Mike and Kevin were pushing pretty hard for something strong and hoppy, like a New England IPA, while JP wanted something a little lighter.
“We all agreed that we wanted to do a lager,” JP says. “Mike and Kevin both wanted to do a heavy-hopped IPL. I wanted to do a more traditional lager, so we compromised a bit, and we have a lightly-hopped lager. You’ve got the smell of the hops and the flavor of a nice, clean beer.”
This brew has a relatively robust hops blend of Citra, Azacca, Mandarina Bavaria, Hallertau Blanc, and Saaz — some older varieties and some newer varieties.
“I like the way the hops work,” JP says, “because we’re using older, noble hops, like Saaz, and we’re using some new varieties, like Citra. So, it’s a combination of old and new, similar to the concept of the beer: let’s try a new beer with a really old grain.”
Brad likes the hops blend, as well.
“Looking at it on paper,” he says, “at first I was like, whoa. Um. But it turned out really good! The blend of hops is beautiful. It’s not in-your-face hoppy, which is definitely proper for this style, but it’s just like, there. It’s an elegant, beautiful bouquet of hops flavor. It’s nice.”
And, belying its name, the beer isn’t hazy at all. It’s a super clear lager.
“It’s an unfiltered lager,” JP says. “Most of your lagers are crystal clear. We decided not to centrifuge this one, so whatever sediment fell out, that was it.”
Even though Brad wasn’t here when they originally designed the beer, it’s definitely something that he can get behind.
“Funny enough, it worked out that me and these guys all have very similar tastes,” he says. “Maize Haze is definitely something that I would have suggested, so it all worked out. I love lagers.”
It sounds like everyone’s really happy with how this beer turned out.
“It is different from anything we’ve ever done before,” Jimmy says. “It tastes fantastic. I would definitely use blue corn again.”
“With Maize Haze I definitely get an underlying sweetness that really shouldn’t be there with its really low finishing gravity,” Brian says, “so I assume that’s coming from the corn. But the Rabbit Hill grain has a very distinctive quality to it, and that shines through really beautifully, with a slightly rustic undertone laying a foundation for everything. The corn really played nicely off the rest of the grain bill.”
“It’s clean, it’s crisp, it’s easy-drinking,” JP says. “I’m very happy with the way the beer turned out.”
You’ll get your chance to try it on Friday. Maize Haze releases at noon from the Brewtique. See you there!