Michael Jackson and Adjuncts in British Brewing

In my decades pondering beer and its history, only in the last year or so did the penny drop on an interesting point: Michael Jackson (1942-2007), the great British-based beer writer whose works are a landmark in the ongoing beer revolution, did not examine malt adjunct in British brewing and especially for ale, the focus of his early works when that product formed the great majority of British beer output.

I’ve examined now The World Guide to Beer (1977), The New World Guide to Beer (1988), and his first Pocket Guide (1982), and cannot find such a reference. To be sure at p. 8 of the first book he states that sugar was legalized for British brewing in 1847, but in the British chapter itself there is no discussion of grist material percentages. Here and there in the early books he refers in general discussions to “lesser grains” (corn and rice), and the importance that such grains not reduce beer to “impotence”, but does not state in the sub-chapter on Bitter, for example, that its fermentable sugar was derived on average from about 20% invert or other sugar or cereal starches.

He occasionally refers to sugar priming for real ale, or use of caramel to sweeten or colour beer, but not sugar or cereals as adjuncts in British ale fermentation.* Perhaps much later he mentioned cereals or sugar in the ale mash tun or kettle, maybe in a newspaper or beer magazine article, but I can’t find such discussion in his early works.

Yet, in his chapter on the United States in the 1977 book, he refers a number of times to adjunct use in American brewing, pointing out by contrast that Anchor Steam beer, a craft beer progenitor, was all-malt.

Why not a comparable discussion in the U.K. sections of the early works? The use of sugar or cereal grain adjunct was in the 1970s almost invariable for U.K. ale production, cask-conditioned beer included. This is stated in many sources since the late 19th century. In their Malting and Brewing Science: Volume 1 Malt and Sweet Wort (1971, 1981) British brewing scientists D.E. Briggs, J.S. Hough, R. Stevens, and Tom Watson summarize such use, see pp. 222-223. They state on average that just over 20% of the fermentable extract was derived from sugar in some form or hydrolysed starches. Maize is a prime example of the latter, used worldwide in commercial brewing until craft brewing partly restored the older, all-malt tradition.

Researchers who have studied historical brewing records, notably Ron Pattinson, also Edd Mathers, have confirmed this. See also the path-breaking Old British Beers and How to Make Them by Dr. John Harrison, published 1976, especially the discussion on older and contemporary brewing materials.

The onset of sugar use is also addressed in other historical books on brewing, e.g. Herbert Monckton in his 1966 History of English Ale and Beer, and technical journals such as Journal of the Institute of Brewing.

Historical sugar use is addressed in an article I wrote that will appear shortly in the U.K.-based journal Brewery History. I discuss its use in Great Britain not just from 1847, when it was first made permanently lawful, but even earlier when for limited periods it was allowed by special dispense when barley malt was short.

So why didn’t Michael Jackson “go there”?  Can it be that such practices might have been viewed as sub-optimal, especially in light of the German all-malt brewing tradition that Jackson lauded in the Germany chapters?

It is similar viz. Belgian Trappist brewing at least in the first major book, The World Guide to Beer, which established his reputation and created the legend of Trappist beer. He does not discuss, that I can detect, the grist composition of the beers.

I think quite honestly, to use a modern formulation, he made a political decision here. It is possible, yes, that Jackson did not initially appreciate the extent of adjunct use in British or Trappist ale-brewing, but that seems unlikely to me. I think he did know how the beers were typically brewed, from the outset of his studies, but chose to skip the issue. One way you see it is where he states in one book that the ideal way to appreciate malt character is in German beer. In effect he is saying its all-malt character best expresses the quality. The implied comparison is to other beers, while quite worthy on their own merits, that are not all-malt.

Certainly the high mark of adjunct use in British beer was about 20% – even as different brewers used different percentages, see Briggs et. al. again – while U.S. usage could well exceed that, often reaching 40% or even more for price beers. But that is a question of degree, isn’t it? There is still a “dilution” of character, whether viewed positively, negatively, or without judgement.

I think of Jackson we can say he took the last view of it. Jackson made clear he preferred all-malt character, but still considered British ale a classic beer tradition, and rightly so after all.

To summarise, he surely knew exactly how British ale was confected in 1977, and would have preferred it was all-malt, for example in the 1982 Pocket Guide he commends Timothy Taylor who had, very exceptionally, retained an all-malt tradition. But he let sleeping dogs lie so to speak, to make a larger point about a valuable beer heritage.


*See my Comment added yesterday on a vague reference to sugar in British brewing in the 1982 Pocket Guide, part of a discussion on beer “properties” at the outset of the book.



5 thoughts on “Michael Jackson and Adjuncts in British Brewing”

  1. Protz’s Real Ale Almanac is full of classic British beers that use adjunct in some form or another. Probably 50% or more of the beers listed contain some type non-barley adjunct; often some combination of torrified/micronized wheat, maltose syrup, maize, glucose, or brewers sugar.

    I’ve never understood the disdain for brewing adjuncts among ‘craft brewers.’ Especially when they’ll wax poetic about a Belgian beer brewed with 20+% glucose syrup and then in the same breath, condemn a well made beer that is brewed with maize or invert.

    • I think that book came out about 1990, by which time the beer revival was well under way, and also, Roger’s work at the time did not AFAIK have the international reach of Jackson. I respect him for including the information, certainly.

      I agree with you viz. the inconsistency of praising adjunct Belgian beer but knocking our own versions. But really that proves my point: craft enthusiasts here had, usually, no clear idea that those beers used adjunct, or that almost all real ale did (setting aside post-CAMRA upstarts who did all-malt), because MJ’s earliest work did not make clear the situation in their regard. I don’t knock MJ for it. He had decisions to make what to focus on and in the overall goal of raising the profile, justifiably, of Belgian and UK top fermented beers, some of the finer detail was (in my estimation) omitted or de-emphasized.

      Had he gone into the adjunct question on these beers, the waters (so to speak) may have been muddied with no clear mission achieved. That would not have been in the interest of UK and Belgian ale brewers.

  2. On page 17 of his 1982 “Pocket Guide to Beer”, in a section dealing with the palate in general of beer, Jackson states, in the context of explaining that outside Germany barley “may” be augmented by 15%-40% of “other fermentable materials that are generically known as adjuncts”, that “The British, with their Caribbean connections, have over the years used a lot of sugar”.

    This vague statement appears 54 pages before his section commences on Britain and Ireland proper. Nor he does make specific the grists and sugar proportion for a given type of British beer, or for different commercial examples among that type, except to note as I state above that Timothy Taylor in Yorkshire is an all-malt brewer.

    Hence, we see a very indirect, essentially non-treatment of the adjunct issue in a British ale context including for real ale, IMO. He gives you all the elements in these books to draw your own conclusions, but it’s very much between the lines. In my view again, it reflected a political stance on his part.

  3. Gary,
    This discussion is on the mark. Michael Jackson was a great writer, and was an invaluable resource (his writings corrested my impression that my six pack of Berlinerweisse Schultheiss was spoiled). However, he was a popularizer at the time, not a straight journalist. I remember an advertisement with him endorsing Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve just after it came out (and was still worth drinking).
    The ads are referenced on p. 44 of http://www.breweryhistory.com/journal/archive/139/Smagalski.pdf.

    I believe that brewing with some adjuncts doesn’t necessarily make an inferior beer, or one with a “thin” taste. Many of the modern IPAs seem to have de-emphasized the malt body in spite of being all-malt, and strong. It’s likely that one of my 1970’s favorite domestic lagers, Pabst Andeker, was brewed with adjuncts. I also liked McSorley’s Ale (Ortlieb after ’76) which probably used adjuncts and was likely brewed with lager yeast.

    • Thanks Arnold. Certainly Ballantine India Pale Ale used adjunct, corn grits IIRC.

      I think Andeker was all-malt. I’m glad you mentioned it, as I will return to that beer in a Part II to this post. I want also to document more specifically some of Jackson’s early comments on the malt v. adjunct matter.

      What I’ve concluded is, attenuation limit is at least as important to palate as malt level. If you ferment out a beer too far, it will taste thin and empty and all the quality malt in the world won’t save it. Too many beers today are over-attenuated.

      At the same time, an adjunct formula with a high attenuation will have lots of grain taste but some will not like the corn or rice contribution, or from glucose or other sugar form used.

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