Here’s What’s Actually Going on With Corn Syrup in Beer

Any company willing to shell out a truckload of money for a Super Bowl commercial is hoping to create a stir. Bud Light has long been a part of that, and they may have created an unintended furor with its 2019 commercials...

Any company willing to shell out the GDP of a small nation for a Super Bowl commercial is hoping to create a stir. Bud Light has long been a staple of that circuit. However, it created an unintended furor with its 2019 commercials. 

The ads take place in the medieval realm of "Dilly Dilly," which hasn't aged as well as, say, George Clooney. In the spot, the King gets a shipment of corn syrup that isn't a Bud Light ingredient. The commercial proceeds to call out Miller Lite and Coors Light for having corn syrup in their respective recipes. The implication, it would seem from outside the creative team that built the commercial, is that corn syrup is bad, therefore those beers are bad for using corn syrup. Who wants sugar in their beer!?

Of course, the news reached the ears of the corn lobby, who wasn't thrilled about the perceived slight. But the beer world had a lot to say about t as well.

The Corntroversy

Miller Lite and Coors Light didn't take the jab in stride. Coors responded. Miller responded multiple times, including some feisty tweets from its CCO. The Miller statement issued on February 5 largely focused on the commercial banking on viewers fear of high-fructose corn syrup, commonly found in sweet drinks like soda and fruit-flavored drinks. (The Mayo Clinic notes, "there's insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners." Though, it also notes that too much added sugar of any kind is linked to "weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and high triglyceride levels.")

"What might have gotten a little lost between the parties and the wings on Sunday is the distinction between 'corn syrup' and high-fructose corn syrup," the MillerCoors statement read. "To be clear, 'corn syrup' is a normal part of the brewing process and does not even end up in your great tasting can of Miller Lite."

It's that last point that has riled up some beer drinkers. All beer requires sugar. Fermentable sugars are how you get alcohol. Bud Light gets its fermentable sugars from rice. Many of your favorite craft beers use malt bills that feature barley. Miller Lite uses corn syrup or dextrose. As has been noted ad nauseam by drinkers since the Super Bowl, it shows up in the recipe for many beers, including the revered Pliny the Elder DIPA.

Yeast eats the sugar and, with exceptions, the sugars are largely fermented out of the finished product. (Of course, you have sweeter beers for a wide variety of reasons, like using lactose sugar, which yeast isn't able to ferment.) "The more sugar you have in wort at the time you pitch yeast, the higher the alcohol content is likely to be," explains Niko Tonks, head brewer at Minnesota's Fair State Co-Op. "Simple sugars are more fermentable than complex ones, and when you're making light beer, you want as much simple sugar as you can possibly get. Corn and rice syrup are almost 100% fermentable. So, adding some syrup to a beer intended to be as low carb/calories as possible is a good idea. Corn and rice are also cheaper than barley, so when cost is a factor, you tend to see more non-barley adjuncts involved."

Moreover, many brewers and homebrewers add corn sugar to bottle-conditioned beers to provide carbonation.

The response has been loud enough that Bud Light put out a statement from its fictional king the evening of February 6, three days after the Super Bowl. (In addition to sniping back and forth with MillerCoors CCO.) The statement starts, "Yeeeesh! That escalated quickly."

"In the Bud Light Kingdom we love corn too!" it continues, offering a low five to offended corn lovers. "My royal accountant actually tried to get me to brew with corn syrup to save money. But, even though corn syrup is less expensive, we brew with rice, along with the finest hops, barley, and water, because I'm the King and it's not my job to save money." 

The suggestion is that, though it's unsaid in the commercial, the criticism was that competitors use cheap products. It doesn't deny any other implications but seems to set aside any accusations that it was misleading about the role of corn syrup in brewing.

"Brewers have a lot of tools in their toolbox," says Surly head brewer Ben Smith.  "For Budweiser to call out their competitors for using corn syrup is definitely an example of the pot calling the kettle black as they use a variety of different sugar sources other than malted barley in their brands. Craft brewers are the same; we use dextrose, lactose, fruit, and some of my peers even use cinnamon rolls to provide fermentable sugars and flavor in beer."

Tonks calls the corn syrup in the commercial a "red herring." 

So, the big question is whether or not you should give a damn whether there's corn providing the essential sugars in your favorite beer. The answer is not really. Not if you enjoy the beer. "Bud makes a big stink about how rice is so expensive and rare and hard to come by," says Tonks, "but corn is no less an integral element in American lager brewing tradition and, in my opinion, often produces superior flavor. We've used corn in many different forms, in many different beers, for many different reasons. Denigrating its use in beer really seems more like a 1990s craft beer move than anything else."

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Writer on the news team at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.