This past February, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. It was the week Fair State Brewing released LÄCTOBÄC 11, and precisely two weeks before my trip to Italy, where I had planned to fill my days with sun and my gut with handmade pasta. Before my diagnosis, my general attitude was, “Well, if I’m diagnosed with celiac, I’ll just cheat on my trip and start the gluten-free thing when I get back.”
But then I learned what ingesting gluten actually means for me: substantial damage to the inner lining of my intestine which destroys tiny finger-like villi that absorb nutrients. Just a minuscule amount of gluten can trigger damage. Untreated, this can lead to malnutrition, seizures, and an increased risk of colon cancer, miscarriage, or birth defects. And the only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet—something easier said than done.
“My whole social life and whole hobbies revolved around beer, so for me to decide I had to give up gluten was not a decision made lightly,” Gera Exire LaTour tells me. She’s a certified beer judge and organizer for homebrew competitions such as The Beer Dabbler. Gera is not a confirmed celiac, but gluten causes her severe intestinal discomfort, skin issues, and joint aches, as well as sleep disruption and trouble concentrating. “I wouldn’t have done it if it were for only a marginal difference. Life is much easier if you don’t have to worry about [gluten].”
The permanent loss of my favorite glutenous things began to sink in—beer breaks my heart, but don’t even ask me about donuts. I also realized my personal responsibility for keeping gluten out of my system. Now when I go to restaurants, I have a spiel. Preempted by a sheepish shrug and apologetic smile, it goes something like this: “Hi, I have celiac so I can’t have anything with gluten. Does this [insert hopefully-gluten-free dish] work?” accompanied by follow-up questions such as, “Do you have a dedicated fryer?” or “Can you wipe down the prep area before you make my meal?” Having worked in the food industry, I’ve been on the other side of this. I don’t like being this person. But I dislike even more the idea of carelessly destroying my insides. And I despise the thought of no longer participating in the beer and food culture of the Twin Cities.
To better understand and navigate the world of gluten-free food and beer, I sought out other folks in the Twin Cities community who not only share a love for glutenous products, but whose jobs and lifestyles have been affected by their inability to digest this tricky little protein.
“Beer was the hardest thing,” says Kim Bartmann, local restaurateur of several beer-centric pubs. Even before learning of her gluten intolerance, Kim paid close attention to creating an accessible dining experience for everyone. (Bryant Lake Bowl has had a gluten-free menu for 10 years!) She feels that a well-balanced menu, one that includes dishes pleasing to a spectrum of food restrictions, is a mark of professionalism. “You don’t want to make customers feel like they have to work extra hard to eat; they’re in a restaurant,” she explains. “If you have a lot of options on your menu, you don’t have to have a lot of dialogue about it.”
Dane Breimhorst of Burning Brothers Brewing scrapped his entire business plan upon learning he has celiac disease. He then utilized his chef training and products such as buckwheat and millet to create a gluten-free beer that “still tastes like beer.” And it does. I’ve found gluten-free beers relying on sorghum have a sweetness and effervescence that linger just a bit too long. I miss my Spotted Cow and my Bell’s Oberon, but Pyro from Burning Brothers is crisp and balanced, as are the award-winning beers from Glutenberg.
My favorite beers had always been the creative ones, those with an unexpected punch: the honey and chamomile of Tin Whiskers Wheatstone Bridge or the zing of Habanero Sculpin from Ballast Point. In their stead, Burning Brothers Orange Blossom Honey, Raspberry Pyro, and Parched Lime Shandy have proven refreshing, summertime beers, as has the Burnout Habanero Cucumber from Sociable Cider Werks. But, I am anticipating grief this fall in the form of new twists on pumpkin beer, and my heart already aches at the thought of a winter without New Holland Dragon’s Milk or Odell Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout. I will miss the comfort of those chestnut-y, chocolaty stouts: for these, I’m still seeking a substitute.
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