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
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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
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?
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.
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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