Try These for a Better Gut Reaction

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By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Those with celiac disease need not fear beer. Popping up on area shelves are four new brews claiming to be free of gluten, a class of proteins that spark a dangerous autoimmune reaction in the intestinal tracts of celiacs. These beers eschew barley, wheat and rye (brewing grains that contain gluten) in favor of other fermentables.

New Grist, from Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, is made from a syrup of sorghum and rice. It is a bright straw-gold with a thick white foam, but the similarity to mainstream beer ends there. With a sour aroma, a crisp cider-like flavor, notes of vanilla and a faintly grainy finish, it's quaffable but eccentric. Brewery co-owner Russ Klisch says his sales increased 41 percent last year, mostly because of New Grist.

But competition has stiffened now that industry giant Anheuser-Busch has released Redbridge, a sorghum- and corn-based amber lager. "The idea was to give it a malted barley taste without using barley," says brewmaster Kristi Zantop. Redbridge has a creamy mouth-feel and a spicy hops character not unlike that of a Samuel Adams Boston Lager. A few gulps reveal a tart fruitiness.

Toleration Ale, from Hambleton Ales in Melmerby, England, is the lone import in the group. This copper-colored ale is, according to the label, fermented from "specially prepared non-malt dark sugars." It has a soda-pop sweetness; notes of molasses, white grape and apple; and a lingering, medicinal bitterness. All these beers are pricey, but at $7.60 for a 16.9-ounce bottle, Toleration Ale is the most expensive.

Dragon's Gold is a pale lager from Bard's Tale Beer Co., a Lee's Summit, Mo., business founded by celiacs Craig Belser and Kevin Seplowitz. Their beer is brewed from two kinds of malted sorghum. It's roughly in the pilsner style, with a dry, earthy, nutty flavor. Although Redbridge has more body and flavor, this one comes closest to a barley-based beer.

Marketing is largely by word of mouth; the government has not set a definition for "gluten free." One proposal would require products so labeled to have fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. Klisch says New Grist tests below 15 ppm; Belser says, "We've never had a hit above 3 ppm." Figures for the other two were unavailable.

Would I drink these instead of regular brews? Probably not. But more than 2 million celiacs 21 and older (so Belser calculates) don't have the option. Belser says 80 percent of groceries in the average supermarket are off-limits to him. At least he and other celiacs can now drink a beer.

Greg Kitsock can be reached

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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