What’s new in gluten-free beers: Less twang

May 2, 2012

The gluten-free-beer movement began as a trickle about five years ago, with Lakefront Brewery releasing its New Grist and Anheuser-Busch responding with Redbridge lager. Since then, it has widened into a stream, with additional breweries debuting barley-less brews safe for the wheat-intolerant and for celiac disease sufferers who can’t ingest common brewing grains without wreaking havoc on their digestive systems.

The culprit is gluten, a blend of gummy proteins found in barley, wheat and rye. The substance triggers an autoimmune reaction in an estimated 1 in 133 Americans, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

Fortunately, Mother Nature is generous in supplying alternative fermentables. Sorghum is the most common, but brewers of gluten-free beers also use millet, buckwheat, rice, tapioca and honey. The Goose Island brewpub in Chicago’s Clybourn neighborhood has crafted a beer from quinoa, while Harvester Brewing in Portland, Ore., uses crushed chestnuts as a raw ingredient.

Neither of those is available in the Washington area, but New Planet Beer in Boulder, Colo., markets three sorghum-based brews in the District and Maryland and plans to start shipping to Virginia this month.

“It was one of the most bittersweet days of my life,” says founder Pedro Gonzalez of his celiac disease diagnosis in 2003. A special diet restored his health but left him with a craving for simple pleasures like a frosty mug. Unhappy with the gluten-free beers on the market, Gonzalez hired several professional brew masters to formulate his beers. His lineup consists of Tread Lightly Ale, a golden ale flavored with orange peel; the aggressively hopped Off Grid Pale Ale; and 3R Raspberry Ale, which won a bronze medal in 2010 at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.


Gluten-free beer from New Planet Beer. (New Planet Beer)

Gonzalez contract-brews his beers but plans to open a half-barrel “demo” brewery where he can test new recipes. What other styles would he like to brew? “How many categories are there at the GABF?” he asks. “Over 100? I’d like to have over 100 categories of gluten-free beer!”

Sam Calagione, president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., isn’t gluten intolerant, but he crafted Tweason’ale after reading the plaintive e-mails of drinkers who wanted a “gluten-free beer with gusto.” Made with sorghum, strawberries and buckwheat honey, the effervescent brew comes off as a cross between a mead and a pink champagne. Calagione plans to release the beer four times a year, in between seasonal brews. Look for four-packs to reappear in late May.

Many gluten-free beers finish with a cidery twang, a taste that some drinkers refer to as Belgian. The Green’s line, brewed at the DeProef Brewery in Lochristi, Belgium, is actually fermented with a Belgian yeast strain and undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. Of the three brands imported by Merchant du Vin of Tukwila, Wash., the best is Endeavor Dubbel Dark Ale, with sweet, roasty, molasses-like notes. At 7 percent alcohol by volume, it’s stronger than most gluten-free offerings. More potent still (8.5 percent) is another attempt at a Belgian abbey beer, Green’s Tripel Blonde Ale, with its spicy flavor and hints of apple and pear in the finish.

Kegged versions of gluten-free beers are still rare, partly because of safety issues. A careless bartender could serve a customer the wrong beer. He or she could contaminate the beer by running it through a draft line that had a few drops of a barley-based brew clinging to it. Dogfish Head kegs a small portion of its Tweason’ale but has its distributors remind retailers to flush the lines out carefully before putting the beer on tap.

It’s easier for a brewer to monitor his beer if his work station is 10 feet from the taps. That’s the case with Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington, where head brewer Dave Warwick has been serving Nikki’s Gluten Free Honey Pale Ale since last winter. Warwick fashions the beer from sorghum, brown rice, locally produced honey and Cascade and Centennial hops. He serves it from a dedicated tap, and offers it in growler jugs and 22-ounce bottles to go.

Nikki’s has a floral aroma and strikes a fine balance between sweet and bitter. The first sip is reminiscent of an ordinary pale ale. It’s not until the beer warms up that you notice the sorghum, with its sticky sweetness and slightly earthy flavor.

“It’s our slowest-moving beer,” Warwick confesses; he runs through about a half a barrel a week. “But it’s drawn in new regulars,” he adds, along with their friends who happily down Rock Bottom’s other beers.

Although pleasant enough, most gluten-free beers don’t precisely replicate the flavor of a barley brew and might not find many adherents in the general population.

That rankled Terry Michaelson, chief executive of the Craft Brew Alliance based in Portland, Ore. “Beer in our society is a connector, something for sitting down with friends and laughing and sharing.”

Michaelson, whose celiac disease was diagnosed 12 years ago, set out with brew master Joe Casey (whose wife is similarly afflicted) to formulate a beer that would appeal to celiacs and non-celiacs alike. About a month ago, Widmer Brothers Brewing (one of the alliance’s member breweries) released Omission Gluten Free Lager and Pale Ale. These beers are made with barley that has most of the gluten removed through a proprietary brewing regimen.

The golden lager is crisp and refreshing, with a lemony hop character. The amber-colored ale is full of resiny hops with lots of caramel malt for balance. Neither has a twang or funk that would peg it as gluten-free.

Here’s the catch: They’re available only in Oregon. Michaelson wants to go nationwide, but there are regulatory hurdles.

The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has authority over most alcoholic beverages. But beer made without barley isn’t covered by its definition of “malt beverage,” and oversight defaults to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA allows breweries to label these beers “gluten-free” if they contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Omission labels claim the beer contains 6 ppm or fewer of gluten. But to ship a barley-based beer out of state, says Michaelson, the brewery needs label approval from the Tax and Trade Bureau. And the bureau does not currently allow any statement about gluten content on the labels of these beers, says specialist Tom Hogue, the agency’s director for congressional and public affairs.

The bureau, Hogue added, is drawing up guidelines that will permit some statement about gluten content to let the buyer make an informed decision. Asked when those guidelines would be released, he answered, “We’re working to get them out as fast as we can.”

Kitsock is editor of Mid Atlantic Brewing news.

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