If you are a regular reader of Drinking Made Easy, then you know that beer is made from three basic ingredients; water, malt and yeast. Hops and other flavorings can be added, but those are the big three. We all know what water is, and anyone who has ever done any baking is familiar with yeast, but, like Frankincense and Myrrh, “malt” is a term that you may have heard of, but that doesn’t mean you are familiar with what it actually is.
Aside from being a key ingredient in two of the greatest beverages ever (the other being a malted milkshake), malt is simply germinated cereal grains. For most beer makers, the grains that are used can vary from wheat (as in wizens) to rye (roggenbier) to barley (barley wines). Almost every beer made today uses some kind of malt or malt extract. Unfortunately, many grains contain glycoprotiens, or gluten.
This poses a problem for people who are either allergic to wheat, or who suffer from Celiac Disease, an intestinal condition which makes gluten intolerable. Not only do these conditions prevent people from eating bread and pizza, but they also force restrictions on any wheat-based beverages, such as beer. It is interesting to note that, while based on grains, distilled liquors are rendered gluten-free during the distillation process. Still, some occasions demand a beer, and what can wheat-intolerant individuals do to satisfy this demand? Sure, you could drink a hard cider, but that’s still not….beer.
As with many questions, beer makers and microbrewers have the solution. An increasing number of breweries are developing gluten free beers. Most widely available, and, based on my informal research the seemingly most popular, gluten free approach is to use sorghum, a grain native to Africa. Other grains that are considered gluten free that may also be used in brewing beer include corn, rice, and buckwheat.
Any food product that contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten is considered to be gluten free by the US Government, and so there are brewers out there (such as Omission in Oregon) that are developing processes which would allow for the use of traditional ingredients, with the gluten removed from the final product. Brands like Budweiser, which is brewed with rice as a cost saving measure, technically qualify as “gluten free” under this definition. Research is still being done on whether these products are sufficiently gluten free to be tolerated by people with celiac disease, so if you are intolerant to glutens, read your labels and listen to your doctor and your body!
For home brewers, sorghum syrup, used in an identical fashion to malt extract in the brewing process, is now widely available. There are several home brew kits on the market that include sorghum syrup and, while slightly more expensive than a standard home brew kit, they produce a very drinkable beer at a lower cost than buying a commercially brewed beer. Brewing at home can also lend itself to adding hops, honey or other flavorings to these beers, as there is a preconception that sorghum beer can be a little “flat” tasting.
The first sorghum beer to be certified as gluten free in the US was New Grist, made by Lakefront Brewery in Wisconsin. The brewery had to first petition the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to allow their sorghum based beverage to even be called “beer”, since previous rules mandated a 25% malted barley content. Once New Grist was successfully introduced, other brands and styles followed.
Today, gluten free beers are fairly easy to come by. I picked up a couple at my local beer outlet (the Bards and the Celia) and another at the Walmart near my parent’s place in Maine (Red Bridge). If you can get a product at Walmart, my friends, that product has ARRIVED.
Brewed by corporate powerhouse Anheuser-Busch, this beer is evidence of how big the market for gluten free products, and beer in particular, has gotten in recent years. There is a bit of irony in that the flagship beer of A-B, Budweiser, qualifies as gluten-free under the government standard of 20 ppm, but the makers seemed to be concerned that by marketing their flagship beer as a gluten free product, they would scare off folks that did not realize how little there was in the way of barley in Budweiser. In any event, this beer pours a medium yellow color and forms a full white head. The nose is somewhat puzzling, as it has a yeasty/solvent smell – not strong like a bathroom cleaner, but a bit on the chemical side. The flavor is light and crisp, with some lemon notes in the background. I found it to be a bit watery, but this is an Anheuser-Busch product, after all. It finishes with a slightly sour ginger-ale quality. It’s not bad, but not very beery. They have managed to make one of their standard mega-brewery beers using sorghum. Good for them, but a definite “Meh” from me.
2.0 out of 5.0
When you imagine a glass of beer, you probably imagine the “prototype” American lager – that certain, light golden yellow, with a thin, stark white head. That’s what this beer looks like when poured into a glass, a perfect American larger. The nose has a bit of funk to it, an earthy damp smell. The taste of this one is a bit odd, a sharp almost acidic flavored beer. It also has a strange mouth-feel, like the Ph is off slightly. The flavor profile is mainly yeast and a little bit of bitter citrus; hints of grapefruit. It finishes with another strange flavor, an almost ear-waxy bitterness. This is not to say that it was undrinkable, or even bad, but I think this one might be an acquired taste, at least for me.
1.0 out of 5.0
The label on the bottle of this one is beautiful, and contains an interesting story about the development of the beer contained therein. The brew master’s wife was diagnosed with Celiac’s, and, rather than resign themselves to never sharing one of their beers together again, they developed this sorghum based brew. It pours a light orange color, with a medium white head. Smelling this beer is a bit of a treat, as it has oranges, cloves, pine and cinnamon in the nose. It reminded me of Christmas, for some reason, but there was a lot going on, all of it good. The flavor is heavy on orange peel, with a bitter hops finish, but the spiciness from the nose is in the undercurrent of the flavor, and carries through the beer. Clearly, this is the most ambitious of the small sampling I have here. It is an interesting beer, very drinkable, yet boldly flavored.
This gives me hope that, as brewers recognize the viability of the gluten-free beer market, they will be willing to experiment with the flavors and taste combinations, and will come up with more exotic brews. While the use of sorghum presents a base profile that is somewhat different that a “traditional” malt base, there are ways to make the beers produced with it interesting, complex, and, well, delicious. Good work here from The Alchemist!
4.0 out of 5.0
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