Serious Eats: Drinks

How to Identify Oats, Rye, Wheat, Corn, and Rice in Your Beer

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Actually, this isn't how it's done. [Photograph: Mike Reis]

Adjunct: it's a dirty word to a lot of craft beer fanatics, conjuring images of cackling evil Bud/Miller/Coors brewers alternately dumping bags of corn into their beer and money into their bank accounts. But like any good curse word, it has its f#&$@n' place.

While the term "adjuncts" does refer to big-brewer-favorite grains corn and rice, it is also used to refer to rye, wheat, and oats (among others)—grains that contribute to the deep flavor complexity and style-expanding innovation that is so closely tied with the craft beer scene. "Adjunct" refers to any beer ingredient other than malted barley that is used to contribute sugar for fermentation (including sugar itself, as is common in many Belgian-style beers).
The rising popularity of adjunct grain in craft beer has led to a rise in the greater public consciousness as to what exactly can be done with these unusual ingredients. Some craft brewers are even exploring the use of those evil influencers: corn and rice.

But what do these things all actually do to beer?

Wheat

Wheat boasts a tradition in beer stemming just as far back as barley, so it almost seems unfair to call it an "adjunct." Nevertheless, its use is extremely common in beer, and is essential to producing German hefeweizens, dunkelweizens, and weizenbock (a shocker: "weizen" means "wheat" in German), as well as Belgian witbier, lambic, and many other styles of beer.

Wheat is used in both malted and unmalted forms. German wheat beers generally tend to use about 50% malted wheat (the other 50% is made up of malted barley), which is less hazy and tart than the unmalted variety. Unmalted wheat is a signature ingredient in many traditional Belgian witbiers, often composing about half of the grain content in that style as well. In both forms, the grain's high protein content promotes a robust head retention.

What to look for:
A fluffy, long-lasting white head is definitely a signature of wheat beers, but the grain contributes a distinct flavor as well. Smooth, refreshing, and lightly sweet, wheat just tastes different from barley.

Pick up an American-style hefeweizen to taste malted wheat in all its glory—traditional German weizen beers are driven by fruity ester and spicy phenolic yeast-derived flavors that may mask some of that great wheat flavor. Widmer and Pyramid both make widely available examples of the American style.

To taste unmalted wheat, pick up a Belgian witbier, like the excellent St. Bernardus Wit. The wheat here makes the beer much hazier in appearance, and the wheat taste has a bit of a sharper edge to it.

Rye

Typically used in small portions (think 10ish%) to play a background role adding complexity to otherwise barley-dominated beers, rye is currently enjoying a bit of attention as a featured flavor in the craft realm. A ryenaissance, if you will (I'm so sorry).

What to look for:
Rye is often described as spicy (in a manner similar to black pepper), earthy, and crisp. While it may be difficult to detect these qualities when the grain is used in small quantities, there are a few commercial examples in which rye takes center stage. Sierra Nevada's Ruthless Rye IPA should be coming out shortly for its second run as the brewery's late winter/spring seasonal. Earthy, sharp, and intense, the beer has a lot in terms of hop flavor, but the malt character is distinctly rye. For a more subtle take, seek Great Divide's Hoss Rye Lager, which showcases rye malt character in a less palate-crushing package. One more to seek out: The Bruery's Rugbrød, which translates to "rye bread" from Danish and is comprised of about 30% rye malt, tastes quite a bit like its namesake foodstuff. It's packed with dense, earthy, spicy rye flavor.

Oats

Primarily used for mouthfeel, oats are most commonly used in the famed oatmeal stout—a British specialty that has grown to find huge popularity in the US. Oats, like wheat, affect head quality; beers with oat adjuncts tend to have more dense, creamy foam. More noticeable is the effect the grain has on mouthfeel. Beers that use just 5 to 10% oats in the grist (the malt composition) will have a rich, smooth texture that lends itself very nicely to the stout style.

What to look for:
Most beers that use oats boast this fact on their labels, but head and mouthfeel indicators will be your best bet for identifying the ingredient in beers that don't. Dense, creamy heads that leave well-defined craters when bubbles pop often contain oats, and the smooth mouthfeel is a sure tip-off as well. Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout is responsible for reviving the oatmeal stout style, and is still one of the best—that's a good place to start. Rogue's Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout is delicious as well. For a non-stout example, seek Tripel Karmeliet: not only is it an excellent beer, but you can find oat's influence all over it.

Corn

Now, back to the "dirty" adjuncts. Plenty of people criticize breweries for including corn in their beer, but far fewer understand why it's used. Employed properly, corn lightens color and body in beer without contributing much flavor. When drinkability and sessionability is a key concern in your beverage, as it is for "the big guys," that's important. Slightly sweet and smooth in flavor, you will find corn's fingerprints all over the light lager and cream ale styles. Corn is also sometimes used to lighten the body of dense, flavorful English styles like the sessionable bitters and milds.

What to look for:
It isn't that easy to identify corn in beer. While there may be a slight corn-like flavor present in beer, it is much more likely that you are tasting a flavor compound known as dimethyl sulfide, or DMS as it is more commonly known. DMS is a product of poor brewing technique, and can be found in all types of beer, craft or otherwise.

Instead, you're likely to see corn's influence as a subtle, smooth sweetness in a light-bodied, easy drinking beer. Because corn lowers a beer's protein content, you may find some detrimental effect on head retention as well. Try a Gennessee Cream Ale or a Corona (oh god, I can't believe I just told the Internet to try a Corona). Both use corn, and exemplify the drinkability the adjunct can bring to a beer.

Rice

Like corn, rice is used to lighten body in beer. It produces a drier product than corn, and is even less flavorful.

What to look for:
Used in most Budweiser and Coors products, rice is about clean, dry drinkability. Next time you're upside-down on a keg stand, think about that!

Do you have any favorite wheat, rye, or oat beers? Feeling like defending corn and rice? Share below!

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