Former fire eaters and longtime home-brewing partners Dane Breimhorst and Thom Foss had a plan. They both loved beer and saw opportunity in opening a brew-your-own-on-premises business in Minneapolis, a place where customers could come and make their own beer. The business plan was written and funding was in the works when life threw them a curve ball: Lead brewer Breimhorst was diagnosed with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is thought to affect about 1 percent of the U.S. population. For those who have it, the ingestion of gluten, a protein in certain grains, interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. Symptoms can range from minor indigestion to serious intestinal issues requiring hospitalization.
The problem for Foss and Breimhorst was that beer contains gluten. Even handling the ingredients — barley, wheat, rye and other grains — would spell trouble for Breimhorst. The two would-be brewers were forced to shelve their idea.
But Breimhorst wasn't willing to give up so easily. Realizing the growing demand from others with celiac disease for good, gluten-free brews, the two saw another opportunity. And so Burning Brothers Brewing was born, taking its name from the duo's fire-eating career.
Breimhorst began eating fire at age 18, soon joined by Foss. They performed for many years at the Renaissance Festival until retiring to start the brewery. Breimhorst sees a connection between his former and current professions. "The combination of performance, art and the craft of fire eating has been a perfect crossover to what we do now: performance, art and the craft of beer."
In order to make truly gluten-free beer, brewers have to utilize grains that don't contain the offending protein. Sorghum is the primary choice, but others like millet, buckwheat and quinoa are also used. The problem with sorghum is that it brings with it flavors that are unpleasant to many. It can be cidery and leaves a lingering floral/almond sweetness in the finish. Gluten-free beers tend to be decidedly un-beerlike.
The beer-loving Breimhorst didn't like these flavors, either. Missing the smooth malt and bitter hops of regular beer, he set himself on a quest to make gluten-free beer that didn't taste gluten-free. His initial efforts involved adding spices, fruit and other adjunct ingredients in an effort to mask the unwanted flavors. But this wasn't resulting in the beer profile he was after.
Breimhorst regrouped. Trained as a chef, he decided to approach beer as he would food, deconstructing the flavors and looking for interactions to enhance desirable qualities while diminishing those he didn't want; bitterness to counter sweetness, for instance. He also became interested in the flavor contributions of yeast and fermentation. He tweaks the fruity and spicy notes and drying capability of the fermenting fungus to bend his sorghum-based beers into shape.
"Yeast is my best friend," he now laughs.
As gluten-free beers go, Burning Brothers brews are decidedly beer-like. The brewery's flagship Pyro American Pale Ale — another nod to their fire-eating past — has a profile that draws from both English and American influences. It's a bone-dry brew with assertive bitterness and touches of biscuit in the malt. Orange and grapefruit hop flavors provide citrusy high notes. While some of the floral/almond taste of sorghum remains, it stays pleasantly in the background. The typical cidery character is completely missing, which is a good thing. Light buttery flavor common to English yeast strains may be too much for some, but I found it brought a welcome smoothing of the bitterness.
Pyro is available in 16-ounce cans at stores and restaurants throughout the metro area. Other beers in the pipeline for Burning Brothers are an IPA, an English ESB, and possibly a Belgian-style tripel and an American lager. Look for the grand opening of the Burning Brothers St. Paul taproom in early April.
Burning Brothers Brewing, at 1750 Thomas Av., is part of a quietly growing collection of breweries in and around St. Paul's Midway area that include Bang Brewing and the still-in-planning Urban Growler Brewing Co., plus the future new home of Surly Brewing Co. just down the road in Prospect Park.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.