“Can you recommend a good gluten-free beer?”
If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that. Gluten is a protein found in the most common beer-making grains: barley, wheat and rye. For the 1 percent of Americans diagnosed with celiac disease, it makes enjoying a cold pint impossible.
So what’s a gluten-intolerant beer lover to do? There are gluten-free alternatives. Beers made from alternative grains such as sorghum, rice and quinoa are becoming readily available. Brewers have even turned to starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes for fermentable sugars to make beer.
The problem is that many of these celiac-safe brews are unpalatable and decidedly un-beer-like. Sorghum beers for instance, are often overly sweet, with soapy and bruised apple flavors that leave most drinkers longing for the real thing.
But there are some decent options out there. These fall into two categories — gluten-free and low-gluten. Truly gluten-free beers must be made from gluten-free grain or another sugar source. Low-gluten beers are brewed using traditional ingredients such as barley. The offending protein is then removed with a natural enzyme called Brewers Clarex. This brings the gluten content to less than 10 ppm, well below the 20 ppm threshold proposed by the FDA. But these beers do still contain gluten. Check with a physician before trying these brews if you’re avoiding gluten out of necessity (life-threatening issues). And look at those beer labels.
A choice of beers
St. Peter’s Sorgham Beer is the best of the gluten-free beers I have tried. This English-brewed ale is light and nuanced. Gentle grainy sweetness and subtle notes of caramel support citrusy hop flavors and a sharp, stony bitterness. Sorghum’s most unpleasant elements are almost completely absent. Be advised though, this is an extraordinarily bitter beer.
Green’s Amber Ale is another good option from England. It leads with loads of chocolate and dark fruits, supported by a vaguely Belgian yeast character. Touches of caramel round things out, while flashes of grassy hops and pithy bitterness provide balance. The apple flavors common to sorghum beers punch through, but with everything else going on they become just one note among many.
New Grist from Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery was the first beer to be U.S.-certified gluten-free. It avoids the sticky sweetness of many sorghum beers, leaving it light on the palate. The apple flavors lean to the tart, green varieties instead of the more typical bruised red. While it may not be the most interesting beer on the shelf, it also isn’t off-putting.
Omission Pale Ale from Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. is among the best and most beer-like of the locally available, low-gluten brews. I could polish off a pint of this light and refreshing American-style pale ale. Hops make a definite impression in both bitterness and citrusy hop flavor. The underlying malt carries hints of caramel and toast. Because it’s made with barley, there are none of the less-favorable qualities that come from alternative grains.
Prairie Path from Two Brothers Brewing Co. is another tasty low-gluten alternative. This low-alcohol blond ale has a body of grainy sweetness with touches of biscuit and toffee. Spicy hops and a dry finish keep it crisp. It’s an eminently quaffable brew.
For the gluten-intolerant who like to drink local, a Twin Cities-brewed option is on the way. St. Paul-based Burning Brothers Brewery will begin producing 100 percent gluten-free beers this spring. When head brewer, chef and self-proclaimed beer connoisseur Dane Breimhorst was diagnosed with celiac disease, he made it his mission to create a brew that he could drink and actually enjoy. Their flagship American Pale Ale is light and vinous. It has a delicate floral and almond sweetness offset by moderate bitterness, bright citrus hops and a touch of tart green apple.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.