Corn gets a bad rap when it comes to beer—just look at the “Corngate” controversy from last year’s Super Bowl. But a Denver brewery is embracing the stigmatized grain in an effort to introduce American craft beer lovers to different styles of beer.
Dos Luces Brewery is using malted blue corn to make beers developed by the Incas and the Aztecs before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492. The brewery is putting its own spin on two traditional Latin American beverages—Chicha and Pulque—in Denver’s South Broadway neighborhood.
“You saw the Budweiser commercials making fun of [Coors Light] for using corn syrup, and that’s completely not what corn is,” says Sam Alcaine, co-founder of Dos Luces Brewery. “There are rich traditions and rich flavors from so many varieties of corn, and it means so much more than a cheap joke. You can build really rich beverages with corn.”
In addition to going all-in on corn, the brewers are hoping to shine a light on often-overlooked beer traditions from countries like Mexico and Peru. They’re all about making delicious beer, sure, but they also want to celebrate diversity during a particularly divisive time in our country.
“There's more to beer than what the Western European conquistadors tell us there is,” says Judd Belstock, the brewery’s co-founder and owner. “There’s more to what’s in the Americas than what the Europeans brought."
By and large, beer is made with barley. This tradition dates back centuries to when early civilizations began cultivating grains and using them to make bread. Wherever people were making bread, there was beer, which formed when the bread became soaked with water and began to ferment with the help of wild yeast.
While today’s brewers will use ingredients like rice and corn as supplements, they tend to be loyal to barley, primarily because of brewing tradition and also because of the stigma surrounding corn and other so-called sugar adjuncts.
But Belstock and Alcaine aren’t afraid to shake up the status quo. They both have strong beer resumes: Belstock worked for MillerCoors and Boulder Beer; Alcaine also worked for MillerCoors and is now an assistant professor of dairy fermentation at Cornell University.
At MillerCoors, Alcaine worked in research and development, which meant he got to play around with different beer ingredients, including corn. His father is from El Salvador and his mother is from Cuba, so he also knew a little about traditional Latin American beverages.
At home, Alcaine started experimenting with malted corn to make Chicha, an Incan favorite that’s still popular in the Andes. He asked his friends to try his concoctions, including Belstock, whose father lived in Peru during a 1960s Peace Corps stint and raved about Chicha throughout Belstock’s childhood. The two friends also experimented with Pulque, a staple of the Aztecs in ancient Mexico, before opening Dos Luces in July 2018.
Because they’re using corn instead of barley, Dos Luces uses customized equipment that’s like a hybrid of brewing and distilling machinery.
Traditionally, Chicha was made by people chewing on corn, then spitting it out. Instead of chewing mouthfuls of kernels, the brewers malt, then mash, their corn, which breaks down the starches into sugars to create wort. For fermentation, they use a yeast profile that mimics what would naturally and spontaneously occur in the mountains of Peru.
Their Pulque is made with malted corn and aguamiel, which is the sap of the Mexican maguey plant (it’s often used to make tequila). To simulate the spontaneous fermentation of Pulque, they maintain a house bacteria strain cultured directly from the maguey sap they get from Mexico.
They flavor their Chicha and Pulque with fresh fruit, spices, coffee, chocolate and other flavors, which turns them into drinks called curados or frutillas.
Though they extensively researched traditional recipes and preparation methods, the brewers are putting their own stamp on these ancient beverages. Corn chewing aside, both Chicha and Pulque were served while still fermenting, but Dos Luces serves them fully fermented (for logistical and regulatory reasons). Their versions are also carbonated, which is another departure from traditional Chicha and Pulque, which were served still.
“We’re taking inspiration from these 3,000-plus-year-old traditions and we’re creating something entirely new,” Belstock says.
The resulting drinks, which are gluten-free and served primarily in earthenware mugs and pitchers, are completely different from other beers on the market. According to Belstock, Dos Luces is the only U.S. brewery using malted blue corn as its main ingredient and the only U.S. brewery making beers exclusively from corn (other breweries and meaderies have played around with Chicha and Pulque as one-off experiments).
“They’re like no other beer you would come across,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, the trade group representing small, independent brewers in the U.S. “It’s dramatically different from your standard ale or lager, and it’s such a fun difference.”