We get Letters v.34: Wondering about Beer & HFCS

Christine writes in:

I just read some info you had posted, and I wondered if you’d found anything about specific brands of beer containing HFCS?? Please let me know if you have. I’ve been searching, but for some reason, ingredients in mainstream beers are a mystery…

Thanks–
Christine

Christine,

There’s so many points of discussion that this brief e-mail wants me to bring up, that I’m not quite sure where to start. But the best place seems to be the direct answer. It’s highly improbable that High Fructose Corn Syrup is added to the great majority of beers. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but if it is being done, it’s not being done by any of the beers you or I are likely to find in coolers across the country.

Beer, nearly by definition, has an ingredient list of four – grain (typically, but not always, barley), yeast, hops, and water. Here’s the thing – sugar does play a huge part in the production of beer. How is that possible when it’s not listed on the ingredient list? Because there’s a bit of conversion that takes place within the grain. Place a grain of malted barley into hot water, and the enzymes found within the grain kick into gear and will work to convert the starches into sugar, specifically a sugar called maltose. This is what the the process known as mashing is all about. It’s this maltose that the yeasts chow upon fermentation.

Now there are exceptions to this approach, mostly found within the confines of MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch, or even a Belgian beer called Jupiler, where they add either rice or corn to their mash. Typically this is done because they need a grain to cut a barley grain with a higher protein yield to make it easier to brew. I can get more specific here, but a resource already exists on the web that explains this much better than I. See How to Brew written by John Palmer. I do know that neither MillerCoors nor Anheuser-Busch are all that keen on telling their consumers exactly when Rice or Corn are added to their respective brewing process, because they’d rather not have you focus on the fact that their beers aren’t 100% barley. If I’d have to guess, I’d say their mash rather than the wort, but it’s possible that corn (and its sugars) can be introduced at other points.

Now you might be thinking “A HA! Corn and Sugar! This must be High Fructose!” Nope. At this point, any corn added to a mash or wort will only bring glucose or dextrose into the equation. High Fructose Corn Syrup only occurs after a very distinct process, one which the big brewers are unlikely to use.

Now sugar can be added as flavoring in beers, often during the wort stage. The Belgians (unsurprisingly) do this fairly regularly, especially in Faros. It’s also popular to add sugars such as molasses, maple syrup, or even honeys to beer, but at this point in the process, this would add to the cost rather than save a few pennies, something that the mass-marketed light lager producers of the world are unlikely to spend. In my experience, people and companies who use sugars in this way are more concerned in quality of their beer, rather than quantity. Whether they meet their quality is debatable from brewer to brewer.

There is one last point where sugar may be added to the brewing process – some home brewers use it in bottle conditioning to add higher carbonation. This is a home brewing technique, and it’s unlikely that mass producers would use this technique, as it would cost ineffective. I could be wrong, and hopefully the brewers in the audience here will correct me.

So, as you can see, sugar is vital in many aspects of brewing. But out of all of the sugars out there, HFCS is not one that is mentioned anecdotally in regards to beer production.

Again, I highly recommend John Palmer’s How to Brew to get a great overview on the process.