Beer Makers Are Getting Crafty to Serve People Learning to Lead a Gluten-free Life

To celebrate American Craft Beer Week, which was held May 17th-23rd, I got in touch with my inner Yankee and set out to discover something new and different. I’m not sure how successful I was, but sometimes achievement is measured by how much you learn, not how far you reach.

Three to be gluten-free!
Three to be gluten-free!

You may be wondering, “American Craft Beer Week? What is that, just some gimmicky group hug created by beer fetishists and joiners like you?” Don’t be so sure. Started in 2006, the “celebration” has been slowly gaining momentum. According to the Brewers Association, one of the sponsors, this past week was promoted by hundreds of craft brewers and beer retailers, and celebrated by thousands of beer drinkers — in fact, there were more than 22,000 “likes” recorded on the event’s Facebook page. Even Congress got into the act by approving a Resolution that supports the “goals and ideals of American Craft Beer Week.”

So, in the spirit of those of ideals — and at the prompting of several readers — I thought I’d do a tasting of some craft beers for those people who can’t drink craft beers. Specifically, people with gluten-related medical issues, such as a wheat allergy or celiac disease. As a lactose-intolerant type myself, I can only begin to sympathize with the gluten-sensitive. As I’ve previously mentioned here, it’s hard enough having to eliminate some foodstuffs from your diet, such as milk (for which I found a substitute) or ice cream and yogurt, which I discovered are somewhat dispensable. But, no bread or pasta or crackers or cereal — wow! And, worse, no hefeweisen or rye stout? Yikes!!

Because I’m no expert on gluten-bound foods, nor do I play one in the blogosphere, I sought expert advice from my friend (really my mother-in-law’s friend) Marla, who lives gluten-free, or “GF,” as she calls it.

For starters, I needed to know what exactly gluten is. According to Marla, gluten is a protein found in just about all the main grains — wheat, rye, and barley — and all their derivatives. This makes eating a “normal, healthy diet” quite challenging for her and others. Or worse: “[Because] malt is made from barley, my favorite candy from childhood, malted milk balls, are verboten!” That also means beer, too, because it’s made with malt from any of the above-mentioned grains.

Does it really matter, though, I wondered (blissfully, arrogantly ignorant)? Is gluten really a big deal? According to Marla, “research indicates that one 1/100 of a slice of bread contains sufficient gluten to trigger the auto-immune response that is at the heart of celiac disease.” Gulp.

Luckily, she says, there are GF alternatives, such as flour made from tapioca, rice, or almonds that can be used with good results to make bread, noodles, and pasta. Other GF foodstuffs include barbecue sauces for spare-ribs or chicken wings, which are a staple in her house (and ours). Even some exotic food can be GF. Lots of Thai dishes, for instance, are safe because the noodles and thickeners are made with rice, which does not contain gluten.

And now alternative ingredients are emerging for making beers to go with GF meals. Of course, most of these products would defy the Reinheitsgebot, a German purity law from the 15th century that’s still in effect, which decreed that beer could only be made with four ingredients (water, barley, yeast and hops). But when have beer-makers (and -drinkers) needed any stinkin’ badges?

The most common grain substitute is sorghum, a species of grass primarily cultivated as animal feed in the U.S. and around the world. In China, ground sorghum (the main alternative to wheat in the northern regions) is fermented and distilled to produce maotai, one of that country’s most popular liquors. So it makes sense that some brewers would experiment with sorghum to make GF lagers and ales. And as others begin working with novel GF ingredients, more options are becoming available to consumers.

I was only able to locate three GF beers locally, but I’ve been told there are quite a few on the market. What I discovered in my mini-tasting was that, as with many exchanges, GF beers are not exactly a 1:1 substitution for their non-GF siblings — there are still some real taste differences. But, like soy milk, you can get used to the diversity if you want a similar-to experience. Here, then, are my notes on three beer-pretenders that I would happily share with friends like Marla. Enjoy!

  • G-Free, St. Peter’s Brewery Co. At first glance in the glass, I couldn’t tell if this import was any different from other English ales. G-Free pours out a clear, golden-coppery color and offers moderate carbonation with fine foamy lacing. And there’s an initial mild hops aroma, with some citrus notes (mainly orange and lemon) and a whiff of candy. But it’s the sorghum-based beer’s taste that sets it apart. Without a traditional malt base, the flavors are much different than an ordinary ale’s — sweeter, sharper, and even tangier — and there was even less body than, say, a bitter. In fact, the mouthfeel reminded me more of a cider, even a pear cider, than a “beer.” Although very fruity and certainly refreshing, this beverage proved a stumper for pairing with anything other than light appetizers. It was tasty with dried figs, nuts, and some mild cheese, for instance, and perhaps it could serve well with a salad or fish. But it would be a sweet pushover for any bolder dishes.
  • New Grist, Lakefront Brewery Inc. Like the St. Peter’s, this sorghum-supported beer also was initially deceiving. Very pale in color and with some bubble action that quickly dispersed, New Grist looked and smelled like a pilsner and was nearly indistinguishable next to a glass of Bud Light. Once again, though, the taste was unexpected. Although also cider-like, the aromas and flavors here were more complex and not as sweet as the St. Peter’s. There was a hint of yeasty witbier-like spiciness, which is odd since there shouldn’t have been even a shaft of wheat near the mashing tun. The label says the ingredients include “rice extract,” which may contribute to its drier, more refined sweetness. And it was the inclusion of the rice that inspired me to try this beer with some spicy tuna sushi rolls — can you say feng shui? Fruity and tangy, like sake, the New Grist enhanced the natural sweetness of the fish and ginger and was also cold and carbonated enough to wash away the salty soy sauce and wasabi spices between bites. I’d be tempted to try it with steamed crabs or shrimp, too (if I wasn’t allergic to shellfish, that is).
  • Toleration Ale, Hambleton Ales. This was the most beerish in the bunch. Dark and tawny in the glass, with lots of racy bubbles and a hoppy aroma, Toleration appeared as alluring as a pint of Newcastle brown ale. Unlike the other tastees, though, Toleration is not brewed with sorghum and instead includes a mix of unspecified “dark sugars” and three different kinds of hops, according to the label. As a result, the taste was more cola- than cider-like, with a noticeable molasses or brown-sugar sweetness. There was also a definite yeastiness to each glassful and an unbalanced homebrew-like bouquet I found appealing. As a result, the beer paired up well with more flavorful foods, like a nutty-dry English Cheddar, as well as sausages with pan-seared cherry tomatoes and onions. I imagine Toleration also would be delicious with a slice of tomato-topped cheese pizza — made with a GF crust, of course. And it washed down a handful of peanut M&Ms tolerably well, too.

Other GF beers on the market that I read about but didn’t try include:

  • Bard’s Tale Golden Dragon, Bard’s Beer, a 100% sorghum-based lager

In the end, I have to say that, though the oddball flavors of GF beers grew on me as I sipped and supped, given the choice I would reach for a barley- or wheat-based malt beverage every time. Of course, I have the luxury of being picky like that (at this point in my life, at least). However, for those people who don’t and must otherwise go without beer (perish the thought!), the good news is that some GF brews offer a very interesting and tasty Plan B.

For more information on gluten intolerance, including lists of GF products and recipes, visit the newly launched Web site Gling. Other useful repositories for GF info include Glutenfreeda and Gluten Free Life.

As always, tell us what you think. Have you tried any GF beers yet? If so, which was your favorite — and what food made the best pairing? Or are there other, alternative beverages that you think everyone should be trying? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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