The American Grain: Elevating Heirloom Corn

Corn has long held an important place in brewing across the Americas, from chicha in the Andes to Mexican and American adjunct lagers. Today, craft maltsters and brewers are seeking more flavorful heirloom varieties to see how far they can push those flavors.

David Nilsen Dec 11, 2023 - 11 min read

The American Grain: Elevating Heirloom Corn Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/

When it comes to corn in beer, we tend to think of it as little more than a highly fermentable adjunct—especially for lightening the body of an easy-drinking lager. However, after decades of being (unfairly) looked down upon, corn has lately been getting a fresh look from craft brewers.

For others, corn’s reputation never needed saving in the first place.

Shyla Sheppard is founder of Bow & Arrow Brewing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For her, a connection to corn goes deeper than brewing, to a relationship rooted in cultural and familial memory. Sheppard is Native American, and she recalls her grandmother in North Dakota making a traditional corn ball with kernels she had parched and ground herself. It’s only natural that Sheppard would use this ingredient in her brewing.

“I like to tie back to what is locally available,” she says, “as well as drawing those connections to foodways that have been a part of our culture since time immemorial.”


Sheppard launched the Native Land Beer Project to bring awareness to the historical use of corn and its role in indigenous culture and to support Native American organizations that were working to preserve traditional knowledge. Bow & Arrow developed a Mexican-style lager recipe and brewed it with blue corn grown and roasted by local, tribally owned Santa Ana Pueblo Blue Corn and Mill—a project that has since opened up to breweries across the country.

Bow & Arrow is at the forefront of a movement to not only reclaim corn as a respected brewing ingredient, but also to celebrate the flavor diversity of heirloom varieties and push the limits of what’s possible with this ancient grain.

Corn in the Heartland

At Sugar Creek Malt in Lebanon, Indiana, Caleb Michalke is growing and malting several unique corn varieties. He grew up on a corn farm, so returning to this crop felt natural to him. “We grow 90 to 100 acres of heirloom varieties, and we also grow a lot of Yellow Dent corn for distillers,” he says.

After starting out with the popular Bloody Butcher variety, Michalke has been tracking down harder-to-find corns, including Oaxacan Green, purple Peruvian Morado, and Boone County White, a local strain first bred in the 1870s. Some have proven difficult to find—for Oaxacan Green, Michalke ended up getting a bag of kernels that a gardener in Illinois was keeping in her freezer.


At Chicago’s Cruz Blanca, a Mexican-influenced brewery and pub, Jacob Sembrano has been brewing with Michalke’s corn and pushing it to levels rarely seen in modern beer. For example, he brews a Mexican-style lager, in which Bloody Butcher makes up a surprising 70 percent of the grist, as well as a grisette made from 100 percent Boone County White corn.

“The idea for the Mexican lager was to push forward the uniqueness of Bloody Butcher,” Sembrano says. “It’s kind of spicy and peppery. It ends up looking like an amber lager, despite no crystal malt being used.”

Sembrano says the heirloom white corn lends a briny, corn chip–like flavor to their Corn Grisette, which is fermented with native yeasts and Brettanomyces. “At 100 percent, I knew it would be a really raw, unadulterated way to showcase the corn.”

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Michalke’s Oaxacan Green corn finds its way into the Masa Verde Mexican Lager at 1840 Brewing. Owner-brewer Kyle Vetter is using the corn in more moderate percentages than Sembrano at Cruz Blanca, but he says it lends a bright yet soft sweetness to the beer.


“I don’t think the average person is going to be like, ‘Oh, is this blue or green corn?’” he says. “But it does add a little more depth. I think it would be a lot of fun to play with different corns in our saisons, but the best way to test it is just to make a light beer with pilsner malt and let the adjunct shine.”

Historical Precedent

For Dos Luces Brewery in Denver, working with corn is more historical imperative than modern experiment. Founder Judd Belstock brews variations of only two styles at Dos Luces—chicha and pulque—and markets them both as naturally gluten-free.

Chicha is an indigenous style from Peru, once brewed by the Incas and still widely produced and enjoyed there. Pulque was brewed by the Aztecs in Mexico, and it has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity around Mexico City. While chicha is brewed entirely with malted corn, pulque is brewed with malted corn and sap from agave (also known as maguey in Mexico). For most beers, Belstock uses malted Colorado blue corn or malted yellow corn.

In these brews, corn’s lower protein level leads to a lighter body than many beer drinkers expect. Also, with their partially acidic fermentations, Belstock’s chichas and pulques can come across more cider-like than beer-like. His most ambitious project to date is a barleywine-strength chicha he refers to as a “cornwine.”


Called Micaela, the cornwine is brewed with Peruvian purple corn. It’s named for Micaela Bastidas Puyucahua, the wife of Túpac Amaru II. Together, the pair led an Andean rebellion against the Spanish in 18th century Peru.

Belstock says the purple corn used in Micaela tastes nothing like corn as we know it. “It’s more fruit than grain in its flavor,” he says. “It reminds me of wine grapes.”

Photo: Matt Graves

Technical Considerations

Brewing with corn is not without its challenges.

“Milling is the hardest part for a lot of brewers,” says Michalke at Sugar Creek. “I have to pre-mill most of the corn because the kernels are so big, a lot of times they won’t fit through their rollers.” He recommends going with a fairly coarse grind—a recommendation echoed by several brewers.


Cruz Blanca’s system isn’t set up for cereal mashing, so they do a coarse crush to help with lautering. However, Sembrano says it still takes a long time. “It ends up being [coarser] than grits, and our extract is really low,” he says. Other brewers report similar issues.

At Bow & Arrow, the use of roasted corn raised some tricky questions. “With using roasted corn, we weren’t sure to what extent that process had gelatinized the starches,” Sheppard says. “When we grain out, we can still see it’s pretty intact. Fortunately, we’re not really relying on it as a sugar source, but for flavor.”

Under those circumstances, brewers should expect lower efficiency than for an all-malt beer. “If you get 65 percent efficiency in the brewhouse out of these [grains], that’s pretty good,” Michalke says. “But you’re not really looking for extract so much, especially if you’re adding malted barley.”

Using rice hulls in the mash is strongly recommended to help with lautering. “When you think you’re using enough rice hulls, you aren’t,” says Belstock at Dos Luces. “I use about 20 percent rice hulls on a weight basis.”


Because corn doesn’t have as many enzymes as barley, some brewers opt for adding exogenous enzymes to the mash to aid in conversion (and, therefore, fermentation). Belstock says he uses high-temperature alpha-amylase during a 180°F (82°C) rest, then beta-amylase or glucoamylase during a 155°F (68°C) rest—he calls this a reverse step mash. If he goes any lower than that, he says, he’s in trouble.

“If you let the corn gelatinize, you’re going to be stuck with a layer of mud at the bottom of your kettle,” he says. “At that point, there’s nothing to do but throw out the whole batch.”

His process efficiencies have improved to the point he now uses about one-third of the enzymes he once did—he gets about 80 percent efficiency from his all-corn mash. “The enzyme producers are thinking I’m doing a cereal mash,” Belstock says. “But you’re not only going to get great efficiency out of that; you’re going to kill all the flavor. Start with less enzyme and build up to what you think you need. Otherwise, you’re just getting corn sugar out of it.”

Sembrano takes a different approach, opting to let nature run its course with his all-corn grisette. “Part of the spirit of that beer is minimal intervention, so not having elaborate mash programs or using any sort of enzyme to promote conversion,” he says. “We mash at 148 to 150°F [64 to 66°C] to ferment it dry.”

Belstock strongly recommends adding yeast nutrients, especially if you aren’t using malted corn. “The yeast nutrients are a requirement because it doesn’t have the nutrient value of a barley-based beer,” he says. “You almost treat it as a seltzer as far as fermentation goes. But anything that uses malted corn has no problem with that.”

A Kaleidoscope of Options

Back at Bow & Arrow, Sheppard has been pleased with the response to Native Land so far. More than 30 breweries have participated in the collaboration, and she is encouraging each to use local heirloom corn varieties from their region, just as she’s used the roasted blue corn in her lager and other beers such as Denim Tux and Brunch Special. She’s excited to use other corn varieties, too.

“There are so many of these old varieties that have this really cool, unique story behind them,” Michalke says. “I haven’t even touched the surface of the [number] of varieties that are out there. It’s just such a cool grain.”