If you had your television on during a sporting event in the past three months, you most likely noticed an advertisement or two promoting the premise that Bud Light, unlike their primary competitors, does not contain corn syrup. The Miller Coors folks aren’t too happy with the campaign and have filed suit alleging the ads are misleading. While the spectacle of two giant beer companies waging a public relations war over what is, or is not, in their beers may be entertaining, it also raises a more interesting question about what IS in beer and should we care?
The Bavarians certainly care. In 1516 they passed a law, later called the Reinheitsgebot or Beer Purity Law, which dictated that beer could be made only with barley, hops and water. Today, Germans effectively promote their beer’s superiority as a function of abiding the dictates of this law.
Alas, things are never so simple. Digging a little deeper into the history of the Reinheitsgebot, we learn that the initial law was primarily concerned with setting a maximum price for beer. This limit, along with excluding wheat and rye grains from beer production, ensured that bakers would not have to compete with brewers for access to the grains used to make food. But rules are made to be broken or at least modified, and during the ensuing years many exceptions have been made. For example, in 1871 Germany’s unification prompted modifications to accommodate the more diverse brewing traditions used in the north. More recently, the formation of the European Union triggered a review of the Beer Purity law in which its strictures were deemed to be protectionist in nature. Subsequently more exceptions were made to accommodate the alternative brewing traditions employed across Europe. While limiting brewing ingredients to barley, hops and water does not ensure a better beer, claiming that your product complies with the Beer Purity Law has proven to be of great marketing value.
Which brings us back to the question of corn syrup. Once again, historical context sheds some light on why brewers began incorporating corn into their beer. As German brewers emigrated to the United States and began to brew Pilsner style beers, they noted that American grown barley had a higher protein content than European barley, negatively impacting their beer. By incorporating fermentable sugars from grains like corn or rice, they were able to lower the protein content and improve beer quality. This also resulted in the divergence of American Pilsner from German or Czech Pilsner in terms of body. The American versions skew lighter because the corn and rice sugars are completely converted to carbon dioxide and alcohol during fermentation whereas barely sugars are only partially fermented leaving behind body building sugars.
So why would Bud Light want to highlight their competitors use of corn in contrast to their own use of rice to lighten the body of their beer? A cynic might speculate that they expect consumers to conflate corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, which has recently received so much negative press. From a brewer’s perspective, the difference is moot. The simple sugars provided by corn or rice or even high fructose corn syrup (which neither brewer uses by the way) are completely converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation.
In the end, your choice of beer should be dictated by flavor.
All beers sold in the United States are pure, modern food laws ensure that to be the case. Rest assured that ingredient decisions made by brewers are a function of achieving a certain flavor profile. I hope that you will experiment with the many beer flavors being produced locally and find one that makes you happy.