Gluten free beer – the basics

Gluten free beer is getting popular among celiacs and those with paleo diets. Learn the differences between naturally gluten free and gluten removed beer.

Gluten free beer is getting popular among celiacs and those with paleo diets. Learn the differences between naturally gluten free and gluten removed beer.

Pizza and beer – a classic combination. You can have it again once you read this information on gluten free beer! Photo: Pizza and beer via photopin (license)

Beer and pizza are a classic combination. It’s also one of the many things I had to give up when I went gluten free a few years ago. It’s funny, I wasn’t even a beer drinker until a few years before I got sick – I decided to start drinking beer in preparation for a trip to Germany in 2011. My “beer training” started with fruity beers and worked up through pale ales and wheat beers. My first date with Legend was to a local microbrewery. By the time I went to Oktoberfest in September 2011, I was able to knock back a couple liters of beer with a table of international English-speaking new friends. In those days, gluten free beer wasn’t even on my radar.

Since giving up gluten, I’d also pretty much given up beer drinking. In the early days, gluten free beer was hard to find and had a reputation of being not very good. But times have changed, and just as traditional craft brewing has taken off, so has gluten free brewing. To understand gluten free beer brewing, it is helpful to understand how beer is traditionally made. To make gluten free beer, either the ingredients or the process must be changed. Get ready, readers – it’s time for beer school.

Traditional beer brewing

Gluten free beer is getting popular among celiacs and those with paleo diets. Learn the differences between naturally gluten free and gluten removed beer.

Beer brewing ingredients like barley and hops are seen here. Photo: Microbrewery via photopin (license)

Beer is generally made from four basic ingredients – barley, hops, water and yeast. In fact, there’s a German Beer Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) that states that beer can only be made from barley, hops and water. This law was adopted in Bavaria, Germany in 1516 and was only modified to include yeast in 1993. Of course, brewers outside of Bavaria aren’t held to this law, so other commonly used beer grains include wheat, rye, corn, rice and oats.

Beer starts with malt – most commonly from barley, but malt can be made from other grains. Malting involves heating, drying and cracking the grains. This allows the brewer to isolate the enzymes needed for brewing.

Gluten free beer is getting popular among celiacs and those with paleo diets. Learn the differences between naturally gluten free and gluten removed beer.

An example of some of the equipment you might see in a brewery. Photo: Creative Commons CC0 via Pixabay

The next step is mashing, where the malted grains are added to hot water. This causes the grains to break down and release sugar. Then the liquid is drained from the mixture, leaving behind the mash (the solid parts). The liquid, known as wort, is now sticky with the sugars that have been released. This is what will be used in the next step.

Now the wort is boiled with hops. Hops was originally added as a preservative, but also serves to provide bitterness that balances the sugar in the wort. After boiling, the wort is cooled, strained and filtered. It’s then placed in a fermentation container and yeast is added to it. It will remain in the container for weeks to months, depending on the beer type. The yeast eats the sugar and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Now the product is alcoholic beer, though it’s still flat. It’s bottled, and either carbonation is artificially added, or the beer is allowed to sit for a few weeks to months to allow carbonation to develop naturally from the carbon dioxide that was produced by the yeast in the fermentation process. Finally, you have beer!

(Source for this section: Beeriety.com)

Gluten free beer: two ways to get there

The reason traditional beer isn’t gluten free is because it’s made from barley or wheat, and fermentation (unlike distillation) doesn’t destroy gluten. Gluten free beer can either be naturally gluten free (made from non-gluten ingredients) or gluten removed, where barley and wheat are used, but then processed to break down the gluten. Coors Peak has a handy graphic showing the difference between gluten free and gluten removed beers.

Gluten free beer is getting popular among celiacs and those with paleo diets. Learn the differences between naturally gluten free and gluten removed beer.

A variety of grains can be used to brew beer. Photo: Creative Commons CC0 via Pixabay

Naturally gluten free beers are brewed from non-gluten grains or other ingredients. This usually involves rice, corn, buckwheat, sorghum, and other gluten free grains. With attention to the yeast used, the beer can be brewed from start to finish without ever containing gluten.

Gluten removed beers are a bit more controversial. These beers are made from traditional gluten grains like malted barley, but then the gluten is removed in some fashion before the final product is released. Fans of this type of beer say that the taste is far superior to naturally gluten free beer.

One common gluten removal method is using enzymes to break down the gluten during the fermentation process. An example of this is Brewers Clarex, an enzyme that originally was marketed to improve stability and to help eliminate cloudiness (“beer haze”) in the beer. This DSM Brewing Enzymes report goes into more detail about the future of gluten removed brewing.

This enzyme breaks down the gluten in the wort, claiming to render it harmless to people with gluten sensitivities. For a more scientific explanation, here’s a quote from Short’s Brewing:

Brewer’s Clarex is an enzyme … that degrades the epitopes on the antigen which causes the immune response known as Celiac disease. By degrading the responsible epitopes, the antigen is rendered harmless because there is no longer anything to interact with the human immune system. The epitopes are the section of the antigen that interact with the antibodies in people’s immune systems. (Source: Short’s Brewing website)

These types of beers are generally subject to gluten testing before they are marketed. Therefore, these beers can be labeled gluten free (in some countries) when this isn’t strictly true. One of the breweries I spoke with provided a test that showed their beer tested under 7.5 ppm. This could mean 0 ppm or it could mean 7.4 ppm. However, it is allowed to carry a gluten free label in the United Kingdom because it is under the threshold of 20 ppm.

United States and United Kingdom differ on food labeling laws for ingredient information

The rules differ in the United States from what Europe allows. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t allow a gluten free claim unless the grain has been processed to remove gluten before fermentation. This isn’t what is happening in the case of Brewers Clarex and other enzyme treatments, which are added during fermentation. Therefore, gluten-removed beers are not allowed to make a gluten free claim on their labels. Instead, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), in an effort to be consistent with the FDA’s rules, will only allow gluten-removed beers to be labeled with “processed/treated/crafted to remove gluten” in the United States.

Gluten-removed beer is pretty controversial within the celiac community. Gluten Dude wrote about his concerns with Omission Beer and pointed to several gluten free beers made from non-gluten ingredients as alternatives. In Johnna’s Kitchen hosted a gluten free beer tasting night and made sure all the beers were naturally gluten free – no gluten removed beers allowed. However, Coeliac UK has a list of gluten free beers on their website that includes gluten removed brands like Green’s, Celia and Daura Damm. In the United States, the Celiac Sprue Association awarded Omission, a gluten removed beer, with their recognition seal.

Gluten free beer is getting popular among celiacs and those with paleo diets. Learn the differences between naturally gluten free and gluten removed beer.

Gluten free beer brewers are sprouting up all over the world. Photo: Creative Commons CC0 via Pixabay

Gluten free beer: straight from the brewers

In order to get the full picture, I contacted a few breweries making gluten free beer to see what they had to say about their process and products.

Naturally gluten free

Ground Breaker Brewery, Portland, Oregon, USA

I spoke with James Neumeister, Head of Research and Development at Ground Breaker Brewery, about the beers at the first dedicated gluten free brewery in the US. They are using naturally gluten free ingredients like chestnuts and lentils to achieve a product that is gluten free from the start. Neumeister says “our beer is brewed very similarly to beer brewed with barley.  We are able to extract sugar, protein, and deliciousness from chestnuts and lentils the same way you would from barley.”

I asked Neumeister what makes Ground Breaker different from other gluten free beers in the market.

“Our beers are different than most gluten free beers because our brewery is different. We have 100% focus on crafting a variety of gluten free beers.  This means that we are continuously improving at our standards and continuously coming up with new and interesting things.  In a brewery mostly brewing with barley, they tend to develop one beer that is brewed as a “crowd pleaser” and call it a day.  Also, because we are a dedicated gluten free brewery, the risk of cross-contamination is virtually non-existent, leaving us more time to focus on innovation.”
– James Neumeister, Ground Breaker Brewery

Neumeister noted that since opening in late 2011, they have received medals at the Great American Brew Festival every year, including two gold medal wins. In addition to being the first gluten free brewery in the US, they may also be the only gluten free brewpub in the world.

Ground Breaker, formerly known as Harvester, has been consistently popping up in “best” lists, including Draft Magazine’s 12 Actually Delicious Gluten Free Beers and Bon Appetit’s 12 Gluten Free Beers that Actually Taste Good.

Americans can find these beers in stores in OR, WA, CA, ID, VT, and ME. It can also be ordered online at Bring on the Beer (US only). Canadians can find these beers in BC and AB. Specific retailer information can be found on Ground Breaker Brewery’s website.

Gluten removed

Bellfield Brewery, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

Bellfield Brewery is a newcomer to the gluten free market, having just launched their first two beers in March 2016. They are in the process of setting up the “UK’s first dedicated gluten free brewery” in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Director Marie Brown tells me “we are not yet brewing in our own brewery – our fit out will start soon and we expect to be brewing there by the summer.”

You are probably wondering why a dedicated gluten free brewery is listed here as gluten removed. That’s because Bellfield is currently using gluten-containing ingredients in their brewing.

“Our current beers are brewed using some gluten-containing grains and our process naturally removes the gluten. Many other breweries use CLAREX to shatter the harmful proteins, making them undiscoverable under current testing procedures, but studies are finding that the residual proteins can still be harmful to some coeliacs. We do not use CLAREX or any other enzyme to eliminate the proteins, but we have created a formula and process – our proprietary system – to eliminate the harmful proteins naturally.”
– Marie Brown, Director

Brown noted that “to secure Coeliac UK’s ‘crossed grain’ accreditation for our beers, we parallel test all our beer in two labs. We will only be brewing gluten-free beers, nothing else.”

According to their website, Bellfield has collaborated with Heriot-Watt University’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling on an “innovation voucher” project completed last November. This project has resulted in a recipe that will be brewed with “entirely gluten free ingredients” once they are in their new facility.

I asked if Bellfield’s “proprietary system” removed gluten before brewing or during fermentation and received the following response:

“While we currently have a range of beers that include… malted barley, these are brewed and conditioned to naturally remove gluten. Our long-term goal is to use both this technique and the recipes created with [Heriot-Watt University] using entirely gluten free grains. Once we have the capacity to do so, we will produce a comprehensive range of beers meeting all international standards.”
– Marie Brown, Director

Bellfield’s current offerings are available from several retailers in Edinburgh, Scotland and surrounding areas. They plan to expand their reach and sell online once they are brewing in their new facility this summer. The list of stockists is updated regularly on their website.

I would expect that their current offerings would be labeled “processed to remove gluten” in the United States, should they decide to sell there in the future. In Europe and the United Kingdom, they’ll be labeled gluten free.

Ocho Reales, Monterrey, Mexico

I came across Ocho Reales Ale at Lupe Pinto’s, my local Mexican deli. Upon reviewing the ingredients, I found that the beer was made from malt and wondered how it could possibly be gluten free. Further research confirmed that this malt was barley, so I reached out to the company to get the story. I talked to Antonio Ortega, International Sales Manager at Ocho Reales, to find out how a beer brewed completely from barley could be labeled gluten free.

“The secret is in our yeast. Our Brew Master [Hector Vargas] developed our own yeast and has special enzymes [which] cut the gluten in pieces. All of our styles are gluten free (Ale, Porter, Pilsner and Imperial Ale) and also have 18 months of shelf life.”
– Antonio Ortega, International Sales Manager

It’s also interesting to note that their “original beer’s style” (Ale) is brewed in accordance with the German Beer Purity Law.

Ocho Reales beers can be found in the United States in Texas (HEB stores stock them) and soon in California. (Don’t expect a gluten free label on these though; look for “crafted to remove gluten” or similar, if they are labeled at all!) In the United Kingdom, find the Ale at Lupe Pinto’s (Glasgow/Edinburgh) and other varieties at online stockists Mex Grocer and Gluten Free Beer Store. Ortega noted they also have distributors in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Which gluten free beer should I drink?

Gluten free beer is getting popular among celiacs and those with paleo diets. Learn the differences between naturally gluten free and gluten removed beer.

Cheers! Now you can make a good decision about which gluten free beer is right for you. Photo: Creative Commons CC0 via Pixabay

By now you know that’s not an easy question to answer. If you’re gluten free by choice (for example, because you follow a paleo diet) and not due to a medical condition, any of these beers should be fine for your purposes. However, if you are gluten free due to celiac disease or gluten intolerance, this question becomes harder to answer. In this case, you will have to rely on your own knowledge of your body and how you react to tiny amounts of gluten. If you strictly avoid even the tiniest bit of cross contamination, you’re probably better off to stick to naturally gluten free beers. If you’re willing to risk a little gluten via a shared fryer, you may be also willing to experiment with some of the wider range of beers out there. None of this should be taken as medical advice, and you should talk to your doctor if you’re not sure if gluten removed beer is right for you and your particular health situation.

How testing works with gluten free beer – it’s not that reliable!

Since I don’t have a celiac diagnosis and I am usually okay with a little cross-contamination, I have started trying a few of these gluten-removed beers. So far I’ve only had very small amounts (sample size, maybe an ounce or two at a time) and haven’t reacted – yet. No telling what would happen if I drank an entire six-pack (and sorry, but I’m really not willing to find out!)

I hope this has been a helpful introduction to the world of gluten free beer and the two main types of gluten free beer you’ll find in stores and pubs. Do you have any questions about gluten free beer? What beers do you miss since going gluten free?

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7 thoughts on “Gluten free beer – the basics

  1. Jason Dyer

    GFTracy,

    I saw your most recent post on Kukko and found your reply to our comments above. I’m sorry that I did not see them sooner.

    I am the importer of Kukko and I am a Celiac. That’s why we are actually importing this beer. I have been drinking it regularly for 10 years with zero impact on me as a Celiac. Finnish Celiacs have trusted it for more than 12 years.

    Gluten Free? In Finland, yes. In the U.S., no. We are marketing the product here in the U.S. as Crafted To Remove Gluten, as required by U.S. law. That is the language on our label and in our advertising.

    The challenge for us is that “Crafted To Remove” has earned a bad reputation thanks to the enzyme beers and there simply is no other category for a barley-based beer in this country – not even one with a unique reduction method that does not rely on enzymes and that has a 12 year safety record. The FDA and TTB simply do not offer any other acceptable alternative to explaining how this beer is different. As a result, we are left with a insufficient Crafted T Remove label and the challenge of explaining a complex story.

    Unfortunately, I cannot divulge the trade secret and the brewery will not do so either. What I can say that all the ingredients are traditional and all the processes involve brewing aids on the Brewery Institute’s list of approved adjuncts. It just happens to be the world’s first 100% barley malt beer that has been safely consumed by Celiacs…for over a decade.

    Of course, every Celiac or gluten intolerant person will have to make their own choice. What we hope is that over time the community will come to realize, as I have, that this is truly a better alternative to sorghum and enzyme beers.

    Best regards,

    Jason Dyer

    1. GFTracy Post author

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Jason. I’m sure you can understand my hesitation to endorse a beer that is gluten removed using a different but secret process. As the ELISA testing method for gluten isn’t totally proven with beer, and no one really knows what fragments are left in gluten removed beers or if they are harmful, I just can’t commit to something that doesn’t, in my eyes, have the scientific evidence behind it yet. I’m glad that it doesn’t make you sick, and I totally agree with you that celiacs have to make the best choice for themselves based on available information. I think I would be more willing to consider drinking it if the “trade secret” was revealed – it’s all a bit too mysterious for me now!

  2. Pingback: Gluten free beer – is it really safe for coeliacs? | talkhealth Blog

    1. GFTracy Post author

      Thanks for the tip – I do follow them on Twitter. I haven’t seen them on shelves in the UK though. Seems like there’s not much of a market for naturally gluten free beers here! Unfortunate, really. I’ll definitely check them out next time I’m in the US!

  3. Good Life Imports, Inc.

    GFTracy there is another option. Kukko from Laitilan Wirvoitusjuomatehdas has been brewed in Finland using 100% locally sourced barley and a proprietary process that removes the gluten without the use of the enzymes. In fact, they’ve been doing it since 2001 and have earned the Finnish Coelac Society’s certification as safe for gluten free diets. What’s the deal? Well, trade secret, but none of the chill haze enzymes are used. Only traditional ingredients and trusted brewing practices.

    1. GFTracy Post author

      I’m running in to a lot of trade secrets lately! 😉 It appears you’re the importer, but if your contacts at Kukko would be willing to give me some more details on their secret method, I’d be happy to do another article in the future. I’d really like to learn more about alternatives to Clarex and other enzyme treatments if anyone’s willing to talk.

      According to the US FDA/TTB, Kukko is a gluten-removed beer. Coeliac UK lists Kukko on their safe list. Cheers, and thanks for stopping by!

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