Corn, Casks, and Can-do

For much of the 20th century, the American way with brewing was derided conventionally by consumers, although professional opinion was more nuanced, even in Europe. Yet, American methods had undoubted early influence in western Europe.

This influence, although more in prospect, is already perceptible in distant 1894, in Belgium. In that year, one of the protean 19th century industrial expositions was held in Antwerp. Among the many categories of products, brewing and distilling were not omitted.

A report that year in the Indianapolis Journal contained some wry language about American beer making a play in an already well-populated field. While taking a swipe, quite literally, at Belgian beer, the implication was clear: selling Yankee beer in Europe’s beer-drinking lands was a mug’s game, at least short-term. (Or not a mug’s game, I suppose).

From the report:

In spite of the seeming incongruity of giving drink to those whose thirst is already so well provided for, there may be here the germs of a successful commercial venture. The taste and strength of American beer are as different from what traveling Englishmen are apt to call irreverently Belgian swipes as is the soda water itself. English porter and pale ale have had no difficulty in making their way into these beer-drinking countries, as may be seen from the quaint names of the imitations in the Belgian section – gold ale, sport ale, stout national, barley wine and Anglo-Bavarian pale beer.

The modern-sounding sport ale was probably a poor rendering of export ale. The Anglo-Bavarian beers, as we saw in a recent series, were made by an English brewery, not Belgian. I suspect the writer was confusing beer made in Belgium with English beers handled by Belgian importers.

An official catalogue for the Exhibition in part confirms the account – for example Bergner & Engel are listed, well-known Philadelphia lager brewers of the time. It is likely the catalogue was not complete though. I could not locate a Belgian (or other) “barley wine” among beers exhibited, for example.

Where the Indianapolis story shines is the perception that American beer held the germ of a successful commercial venture. This proved to be completely true. Not in the sense that American brands would enjoy a large export business to Europe – they never did – but in the sense that Belgium ultimately embraced the American way to brew lager.

As the story noted, Belgium was still a top-fermentation country then. By the mid-20th century that had changed, lager was the bulk of production, as today. And not just that, it was adjunct brewing. Germany, Austria and Bohemia were of course always a notable influence on Belgian brewing but their keynote was all-malt lager.

The Americans used corn, rice, or other adjunct to bulk out the malt base of their beer, a technique later usual in Belgium and far beyond. Of course, the respective beers did not taste “the same”, in part due to differing base malts and percentage of adjuncts used.

But American innovation clearly influenced Belgian brewing in this regard. Yes, the British were using sugar in brewing by then (and some grain), and might be viewed as also influential, but Belgian lager has relied mainly on grains, not sugar, to supplement the malt.

Therein the Americans excelled, motored by supportive brewing scientists such as Anton Schwarz.

In the (1996) Belgium by Beer: Beer by Belgium, authors Annie Perrier-Robert and Charles Fontaine include (p. 110) a table for six years between 1970 and 1989. In 1989 rice and maize, about equal quantities, and small amounts of wheat and “other farinaceous substances” together represented about 36,000 tonnes in Belgian brewing.

Against that about 11,100 tonnes of sugar were employed. Total barley malt used (1989) was 181,962 tonnes, which gives an idea of the relative position of adjuncts in that country then. The breakdown for all sample years was broadly comparable.

These numbers included all forms of brewing, top-fermentation as well, but the bulk was clearly lager by then.

I have not checked lately, but would think adjuncts in brewing are least as high today.

The percentage used is less than is generally taken as the American average (i.e., for the mass market), but the pattern is the same. The authors explain that cost was a major factor, and that after the American Civil War America promoted actively sales of maize to Belgian brewers.

For its part, the 1894 Catalogue does not seem to stress sales of maize by American growers. A milling company in Buffalo did advertise various starch-based products (amidon) including nourriture de maïs.

But maize was exhibited from sources closer to home by 1894, especially Bulgaria which listed multiple producers. While a process was necessary to reduce the oil content to make corn suitable for brewing, Perrier-Robert and Fontaine state that in 1892 Keulemans & Windelinckx Maltings in Mechelen took a licence from Gillman & Spencer in London to de-germ maize.

The result, wrote the authors, was “the stunning growth of this raw material, from its debut” (see in general at 93-94).

After WW II the taste for English-style porter and ale, already popular in Belgium before 1900 as we see above, was mostly supplanted by this newer adjunct lager. That style of beer was pioneered in practical, commercial terms by Americans.

Similarly, the American style had writ finally in France, many other parts of Europe, and Britain itself.

The Catalogue has some good points of interest, e.g. this page (p. 514) in the British section. One brewery had no issue stating its beers were made with “25% grain”, probably corn in some form. The breweries in the main were smaller ones, except for Ind Coope in Burton.

The American section* (p. 258) included Bieckert of Buenos Aires. A contemporary portrait of Bieckert (1899) appeared in the The Brewers’ Journal. The founder was an emigrant Alsatian, looking for new pastures even before the 1870 war that saw Germany snatch his native province from France.

Bieckert-labeled beer is still available. The company endured into the 1990s, but was picked up by the well-known Quilmes nearby. It was spun-off to an investors group in the mid-2000s, and is now part of CCU, a Chilean-based public company partly owned by Heineken.

Bieckert’s beer was all-malt, as the 1899 description was careful to explain. I would think it is not, today, but don’t know for certain.


*Interestingly, Bergner & Engel also listed ale and stout, presumably top-fermented in this case. Indeed eBay lists a handsome label for its brown stout in about the same period.






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