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POINT OF BREW ----- Michael J. Lewis

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The Icky Sticky Corn Syrup War

Anheuser Busch-Inbev and MillerCoors have got themselves into a cat-fight over the use of corn syrup.

Both use this product in some of their beers but the particular products at issue are Bud Light, that does not use corn syrup, and Miller and Coors Lite that do.

This issue originally arose in advertising by AB-I at the latest super bowl game. The advert showed a giant tub of corn syrup being transported by medieval men with boats and horses first to a Miller castle and then to a Coors one. With its possible nod to Monty Python skits, the advert is well made and quite funny. The message of the ad is about as plain as it can be: MillerCoors uses corn syrup in their low-calorie beers and Anheuser-Busch-Inbev does not.

However, we are not told what AB-I does use.

My first reaction to this advert was is there are some young bucks and young does in the promotional department of AB-I who lack adult supervision. There is a longstanding understanding in the brewing business that you do not criticize the beer category in any way and this is best done if you do not mention a competitor’s beer. At AB-I, someone in charge of promo didn’t know this, forgot this or decided to ignore it.

As a result: court case.

You promote your own beer by extolling its virtues. You might mention superior raw materials, superior traditional processes, superior flavor and so on. Of course, if your beer is correctly claimed to be superior, your competitor’s beer must be inferior. Well, it’s your competitor’s business to advertise that his beers are also superior. So it’s a wash that leaves the consuming public free to make up its own mind in a fog of disinformation, as usual.

Advertising is about attracting attention not information. Hence the Clydesdales.

Well, this latest advert changes that dynamic.

AB-I claims the object of the advert was simply to point out a difference between their light beer and those of MillerCoors, without saying, in a fair way, how AB-I achieves its low-calorie objectives in Bud Light. But, to go to so much trouble and such high expense to make this trivial point, it would surely be disingenuous to suppose there was no other motive. MillerCoors identifies that motive as trying to accuse them of using the much-maligned high-fructose corn syrup. They do not use that because it would be more expensive and offer no advantage whatsoever.

So what is going on here? Why is corn syrup used and what might Bud light use instead?

When a brewer makes regular beer from an all-grain grist, malt+rice grits (Budweiser) or from malt+corn grits (MillerCoors) only about two-thirds of the starch (whether it comes from malt, rice or corn) is broken down to fermentable sugar; the other one-third is unfermentable dextrins that survive into the beer. This regular beer will contain about 150 calories, two-thirds of which comes from alcohol and one-third from the residual dextrins.

If a brewer can lower the dextrin content by (a) not putting them in in the first place (e.g. by using corn-syrup instead of corn) or (b) by removing them, a beer with one-third less calories can be marketed.

There are many different kinds of corn syrup with many applications in the food industry. The simplest one is glucose syrup with no other sugar; another might contain maltose and glucose. Since maltose and glucose are both fully fermentable sugars, (that is, converted completely to alcohol by yeast in fermentation) substituting such corn syrups for corn grits in the original recipe automatically eliminates unfermentable dextrins that would arise from using corn grits.

That alone would make a substantial savings in calories and is a useful idea and intelligent technology.

However, simply converting unwanted dextrins to alcohol does not save any calories. It just makes high alcohol/high calorie beer. So water is added to bring the beer back to a standard alcohol and calorie content.

The rest of this column is conjecture because companies do not call me up to tell me their brewing strategies.

This story so far (i.e. using syrup) would leave in the beer those dextrins that arise from the malt part of the original grist. To convert them to a fermentable state, brewers use added enzyme. There is a commercially available enzyme, for this purpose, called amyloglucosidase; this is very effective. A further option might be a concentrated enzyme extract from a lightly kilned malt. This would tend to be less effective and might leave behind a few extra calories but could be claimed to be more “natural.” Either strategy works and a low-calorie beer results.

AB-I faces exactly the same set of problems as MillerCoors when they set out to make Bud Light. That is, to omit or remove naturally occurring dextrins that add unwanted calories. As the brewing options for doing this efficiently are somewhat limited, I do not doubt that AB-I uses fully fermentable rice syrup in their approach (rather than corn syrup) plus an enzyme preparation likely of their own development.

Does this make a hill of beans difference?

Technically no.

Neither rice syrup nor corn syrup nor the enzymes that might be added leave any significant trace in the finished beer, except as alcohol.

So, if you detect a flavor difference between these two low-calorie beers, go with the beer whose flavor you prefer.

Michael J Lewis MUG Picmonkey

Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.

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