For this collaboration with Los Lobos we wanted to find something that would tie the beer to tradition while also pushing some limits. We wanted a crushable, light beer but that doesn’t mean that it has to be devoid of interesting character.
So instead of flaked maize that is prepared by maltsters and is often used for its small flavor contribution (think about macrobrewers using it to make cheap, flavorless “beer”) we chose to nixtamalize corn in order to enhance the flavor of the beer. Let me tell you a little about the process and how we created this flavorful Mexico-inspired lager.
Corn has been a staple in the diets of people in the Americas for thousands of years, but not the sweet corn that we eat straight from the cob. That method of preparing and eating corn does not provide very much nutritional value, your body can hardly even process it. The real nutritional and flavorful value of corn has to be unlocked through a process called nixtamalization. This process involves heating and then soaking the corn in an alkaline solution. This breaks down the outer layer of the kernel, allowing us to rub it off and then softens and chemically alters the germ and endosperm releasing the nutrients and vitamins and developing the buttery and earthy flavors that we expect in tortillas.
For this beer we boiled our purple corn in a solution of water and pickling lime for 30 minutes. At that point the kernels were softening but the center, germ, was still a little tough. We then transferred the entire contents of the kettles we were using into sanitary buckets and parked them in the cold box overnight. The time sitting in the pickling lime allowed the kernels to continue to soften and the complete nutritional value of the corn was developed. In the morning we had a thick slurry of soft corn kernels that had soaked up much of the liquid solution.
We rinsed the kernels and then ground them in a food processor. If we had been making tortillas we would have stone ground them into a fine flour and we would have masa. Instead, we went for a loose grind so that it was still chunky enough that it would not cause problems during the lautering stage (rinsing of the grains) of brewing.
Nixtamalization has been happening for thousands of years. In some regions wood ash was used as the alkalizing agent. In coastal regions sea shells were used to provide the alkalinity. Now we use pickling lime. This has nothing to do with the fruit that is so frequently sliced and put on the top of many Mexican lagers. It is calcium hydroxide which is derived from heating limestone.
But hey! What about that lime on top of my beer, you may be asking. Well, you don’t need fruit for this beer. We wanted to make this enjoyable with as little effort as possible so we used a small quantity of Citra hops at the end of the boil to add just the lightest citrussy zing to the finished beer.
You can smell the tortillas when you first raise the glass to your mouth. When you taste it you will continue with the taste of tortillas but then the light citrus character dances across your pallet leaving it clean and refreshed, ready for another sip. To be honest though, I find this one hard to just sip, I find myself taking large thirst quenching gulps each time I pour one for myself.
I hope that you enjoy this beer as much as we have enjoyed making it for you!
– Matt Akin, Head Brewer