This special Style Profile focuses on the infinite variety of Gluten Free Beer.
BY MICHAEL AGNEW, A Perfect Pint
To readers of The Growler, the disease’s triggers are familiar: wheat, barley, rye, and oats. They just happen to be the main grains from which beer is made. This means that for the one percent of Americans suffering from celiac disease, a frosty-cold pint could be an admission ticket to the hospital. It’s beer-lover’s hell. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
The National Institute of Health’s PubMed Health website defines celiac disease as, “a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, [a protein] which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats.” This genetic condition is thought to affect 1 in 133 people in the United States. Symptoms – which can include stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, malnutrition, vomiting, and nosebleeds, among many others – can be severe and even life-threatening. This is serious stuff.
But all is not lost for the gluten intolerant. Gluten-free beers and reduced-gluten brews do exist. To be gluten-free, a beer must be made with gluten-free grains or other sugar sources. These include sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat, rice, corn, and even sweet potatoes. Reduced-gluten beers are made from traditional ingredients like barley, with the offending protein later being removed with a natural enzyme called Brewers Clarex™. Proposed Federal Drug Administration guidelines for reduced-gluten beers require gluten levels below 20 parts per million (ppm). Brewers report levels as low as 5-10 ppm in the reduced-gluten beers currently on the market. However, it’s important to note that current, accepted methods of calculation cannot give accurate measurements below 20 ppm. In any case, reduced-gluten beers do still contain gluten. Sensitive celiacs should approach them with extreme caution.
Gluten-free beers have a bad reputation in the flavor department. Indeed, some of them are less enjoyable to drink – some, but not all. To appreciate the good ones, you have to adjust your expectations. Don’t expect them to taste like your average beer; rather, take them for what they are. Wrap your mind and your palate around their different and unique flavors and you might find a few that you actually like.
The primary grain used to make gluten-free beers is sorghum. Sorghum brings lightly-sweet, floral, earthy, and vegetal flavors that remind me of parsnips (and I love parsnips). These are sometimes mingled with overtones of tart green apple. Additional layers of character are derived from other grains and sugar sources: nutty notes from different varieties of rice, pumpkin flavors from sweet potato or squash, or dark fruity flavors from brown sugar and mild molasses. Just like barley-based beers, hops and yeast are also in the gluten-free brewer’s flavor cupboard. With so much potential for variety, it’s impossible to speak of a single gluten-free “style.”
The best of the gluten-free beers, in my experience, is St. Peter’s Sorgham Beer. This English-brewed ale is light and nuanced, with hops sounding the dominant note. Gentle, grainy sweetness and subtle notes of caramel support citrusy hop flavors and a sharp, stony bitterness. Sorghum’s more unpleasant elements are almost completely absent. Be advised though, this is an extraordinarily bitter beer. If bitter is not your thing, St. Peter’s might not be for you.
The Belgian-brewed Green’s Gluten Free ales also present a respectable option. Combinations of sugars and yeast give these beers interesting and complex profiles. The Discovery Amber Ale is my favorite. It leads with loads of chocolate and dark fruits, supported by a vaguely Belgian yeast character. Touches of caramel round things out, while flashes of grassy hops and pithy bitterness provide balance. The apple flavor common to sorghum beers punches through, but with everything else going on, it becomes just one note among many. Green’s also makes a roasty Dubbel Dark Ale and a barley wine-like Tripel Blonde Ale.
If you like to drink local, a Minnesota craft beer option is on the way. St. Paul-based Burning Brothers Brewery will begin producing 100% gluten-free beers this spring. Their flagship American Pale Ale is light and vinous. It has a delicate floral and almond sweetness offset by moderate bitterness, bright citrus hops, and a touch of tart green apple. Once I had adjusted my palate to the flavors in my glass, I happily drank a couple pints of this one evening while sitting in my office writing.
Because they are made from barley, reduced-gluten beers are decidedly more “beer-like.” My pick among them is Prairie Path from Two Brothers Brewing Company. It’s not quite a Minnesota craft beer, but his sessionable blond ale has a body of grainy sweetness with touches of biscuit and toffee. Spicy hops and a dry finish keep it crisp. It’s an imminently quaffable brew and was my favorite beer on a recent visit to the Two Brothers Taproom.
The Omission-branded beers from Widmer Brothers Brewing Company are also good low-gluten options. The American Pale Ale makes a definite hop impression in both bitterness and citrusy flavor. The underlying malt carries hints of caramel and toast. Omission Lager is simple, light, and refreshing, with bready malt supporting citrus and black pepper hops.
It’s worth repeating that the reduced-gluten beers do contain gluten. If you have high gluten sensitivity, read the labels carefully. If it doesn’t say sorghum, it probably isn’t gluten-free.
A Perfect Pint provides full-service beer tasting and beer education events for corporations, private parties, and the food service industry. Whether you are planning a small gathering in your home or entertaining a hundred clients at a beer dinner, A Perfect Pint can plan a custom event to fit your needs. Call Michael at 612.724.4514 or email to plan an event.