As demand for gluten-free foods has risen, brewers have adapted to meet it. Many new and established breweries are producing gluten-reduced beers, and there are more producers of truly gluten-free beers than ever before.
Beer is traditionally brewed with barley, wheat, rye and other gluten-containing grains. To make a beer that is totally free of gluten, brewers have to use alternative sources of starch that do not contain gluten, such as millet, corn, rice or sorghum.
A problem with gluten-free beers has always been that these grains don’t taste like the traditional brewing grains. In the case of sorghum, the taste can actually be unpleasant. For many beer drinkers, the profile of these beers has historically been disappointing at best.
But the new class of gluten-free brewers is experimenting with ways to overcome these limitations. Thinking like chefs, they are manipulating the basic flavor components — bitterness, sweetness and the herbal and fruity flavors of hops — to balance and mask those less desirable characteristics. The result is beer that, while not tasting exactly like traditional beer, is nonetheless quite pleasant to drink.
Dane Breimhorst, the brewer at St. Paul’s Burning Brothers Brewing Co., is a former chef who received a diagnosis of celiac disease only after starting plans to open a brewery. Developing beers the way he used to develop a dish, he is able to produce a full array of flavorful beers from light lagers to India pale ales and stouts.
Raj-Agni IPA is one of the brewery’s flagships. It is an IPA worthy of any drinker’s beer fridge. Bitterness is the focus — perhaps a bit too much for my bitter-averse palate, but not so much that it’s offensive. Floral and grapefruit peel hop flavors follow close behind. It’s clearly made with alternative grains, but a light toast and sweetness make that character an intriguing addition.
Hop lovers will go wild over Most Coast IPA. This beer drips with juicy tropical fruit hops like pineapple and mango, with a touch of citrus adding brightness. Toasted malt with a touch of caramel provides a sturdy base. Bitterness is high and lingers long into the finish. Most Coast is deliciously delicate, yet assertively flavorful.
Another Burning Brothers favorite is the Dry Stout. Currently only available at the brewery, it may soon see canned release. Roasted millet gives this beer a rich cocoa profile with hints of toast and caramel beneath. Bitterness is low, but given a boost by light roasted malt and earthy hop flavor. The finish is dry with long-lingering cocoa and roast. My only complaint with Dry Stout is the color. Its dark brown falls short of the opaque blackness that I expect of a dry stout — though this nitpicky criticism in no way detracts from the enjoyability of the beer.
Then there is the coffee approach. Take strong ale style and add cold-brewed coffee from Cameron’s Coffee in Shakopee and you get Roasted Coffee Ale. Fresh coffee comes in loud and clear and nicely with dry, chocolate cookie notes. Splashes of caramel and vanilla round it out. Delicious.
Brasseurs Sans Gluten in Montreal makes gluten-free beers sold under the Glutenberg brand. Spanning a wide range of styles, they are among the best gluten-free beers I’ve tasted.
Glutenberg India Pale Ale is a deliciously balanced celebration of hops. The bitterness is real, but the emphasis is on hop flavor. Dry grapefruit pith and juicy slices mingle with notes of pineapple and floral. It’s all held together by grainy-sweet malt that offers just the slightest hint that it’s not barley. I believe that I could give this beer to the majority of IPA fans and they would not recognize that it is gluten-free.
Malt lovers will like the Glutenberg Red Ale. Toasted bread and grain form the core with luscious caramel sweetness to balance. Actual chestnuts give a nice nutty overtone. Raisiny dark fruits complete the picture.
Glutenberg Gose is one of the only gluten-free sour beers I have seen. Gose (pronounced GO-suh) is an old-style, sour German wheat beer made with coriander and salt. Lactic acidity gives it a bright, lemony tartness. The lightest hint of salinity helps accentuate a balancing wheat-malt sweetness. The Glutenberg version is true to style — tart, floral and wheaty. The blend of millet and buckwheat in this beer creates a remarkably wheat-like result.
Gluten-reduced beers are made with traditional grains. An enzyme-based product originally developed to clarify beer breaks down the gluten into harmless compounds. As a result, these beers have a flavor that is indistinguishable from normal beer.
The enzymes, however, do not remove all of the gluten. Gluten measurement becomes inaccurate below 20 parts per million, so it is difficult to know exactly how much gluten may remain. For people with celiac disease or especially severe sensitivities, gluten-reduced beers may still present problems.
Surly’s Hop Shifter IPA is a gluten-reduced brew that is all Surly. Bitterness is just barely balanced by low malty sweetness with touches of biscuit. Lemon-lime and floral hops are the stars of the show, with low notes of juicy pineapple adding depth. It has a bit of haze, but doesn’t go full-on into New England IPA range.
For those seeking a simpler beer, New Belgium’s Glutiny Golden Ale is a good go-to. It’s a straightforward and good tasting blond ale that blends grainy-sweet malt with bright, lemon juice citrus hops. It’s not complex, but it is solid and satisfying.
Rock Bottom Brewery in Minneapolis (825 Hennepin Av. S., Suite 125, 612-332-2739, rockbottom.com/locations/minneapolis) offers a number of gluten-reduced beers that are clearly identified on the beer menu. I was particularly fond of Skol! Amber, a malt-forward brew showcasing the flavors of caramel and toasted bread with a bit of earthy hops.
Several other local breweries are making beers using the gluten-reducing enzyme, including Venn Brewing in Minneapolis and Roets Brewing in Jordan. These beers are not always clearly identified, so be sure to ask the bartender.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.