Gluten Free. You see it everywhere, and for someone like me (*not* gluten free), it might easily be assumed that life as usual could go on, simply substituting “things with no gluten” for those which one previously enjoyed.
This is a problem when trying to choose beer.
For those unfamiliar with the four basic cornerstones of beer and beer-making (a time honored and delightful pursuit, frankly), let us consult the Reinheitsgebot, also lovingly referred to as the German Purity Law. Written in 1487 and enacted into German Law around 1516, the law’s aim was to regulate the production and quality of beer brewed in Germany.
The important part of the Reinheitsgebot was that “the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water (emphasis added).” and furthermore, those who disobeyed risked confiscation of “such barrels of beer, without fail.” Summarily, the Germans didn’t want competition from external beers brewed with a wider range of ingredients. Now, after some fighting and arguing and some additional history (you can look it up if you really want to geek out), the law was repealed from imported beers, and since 1993, the Germans have been able to brew under the Provisional German beer law, allowing them greater freedom in their brewing (that’s your history lesson for the day).
The fourth cornerstone of beer, yeast, was discovered later… Wild yeast strains are still used in some historical Belgian breweries, and up until Louis Pasteur discovered that the alcohol byproduct was created by yeast it was sort of a magical process that no one really understood… Nowadays most beer is created with the purposeful addition or pitching of a chosen type of yeast. But what’s that got to do with gluten free?
Gluten free is basically antithesis-beer! You can make beer with all sorts of additional ingredients (adjuncts, additions to the boil, herbs and spices), but the basic tenements of beer remain: barley, hops, water, and yeast. The barley (depending on it’s malting/roasting) imparts the cereal like flavors and the color. The hops add the astringency, the tannic qualities, and the bitter flavors. Water is fundamental! As the canvas upon which the flavor profile of the finished beer is painted, the hardness of the water and the mineral content can change the way beer tastes in the end… Yeast eats the sugars in the malted barley soup (the wort) that magically creates the alcohol (and the CO2 to naturally carbonate the beer when primed in the bottle). Yeasts are also used to impart flavors – like a Belgian yeast will impart banana/bubblegum “esters” in the finished product… The science behind beer is really fascinating – and good brewers know how to develop multi-layered, balanced & complex beers that taste great, have the right carbonation, and finish nicely.
So what to do? How do brewers create gluten free beer with no barley?! How do you do without one of the fundamental essences of beer; the grains that provide the sugars that the yeast eat, and still come up with beer?
You use gluten free grains! Millet, sorghum, amaranth, rice, and corn are all used in gluten free beers.
Gluten free beer? Where does one even *find* gluten free beer? Is this a health food store thing? Does such a thing even exist? Spurred on by these questions, I went in search. My first guess? A local bottle shop.
I rode my bicycle up to my neighborhood bottle shop, aptly named Bottles, on NE Fremont. With over 450 bottles and 8 rotating beers on tap, I was pleased to find a selection of no less than 8 gluten free beers in the cooler, since I didn’t know what kind of selection for gluten free beers to expect. Explaining my quest, I had a delightful little chat with co-owner Shawn Meyer. We discussed some choices. (I was reminded of the mixed six pack deal by the nice man tending the BBQ, and gave Shawn carte blanche to determine the other half of my six pack.) Sweet! I plunked down $20 for my six pack (don’t be alarmed, it was honestly the Green’s that was a third of that). I took them home, and with the help of my trusty bottle opener wielding assistant, I tried them.
Lake Front Brewery – Milwaukie, Wisconsin: New Grist: Sorghum and rice with 5.75% ABV. Pours like a pale ale, highly carbonated. My first impression of the nose is that this smells like a cider. A little baffled, I pressed on. The head was light, white, and dissipates quickly. No lacing, and the aroma up front comes to rest as apple. Slightly tart, this would have made perfect sense to me if I poured it thinking it was a cider. As such, it was palatable, refreshing, and a good choice for a summer day. If anyone is looking for a gluten-free picnic beer, this would pair nicely with summer foods.
Green’s – West Yorkshire, United Kingdom: Quest Tripel Blonde: Millet, buckwheat, sorghum & rice create this tremendously punchy beer at 8.5% ABV. The esters just about smack you in the face from the get go – something that I think is unfortunate for this beer. While I appreciate the Belgian qualities of this beer, it comes across the palate like nail polish remover. Perhaps a lesser ABV and more balance in the flavours would be a nice change, as I found it personally to be pretty awful. The cleanest white head, moderately golden in color, there was minimal lacing, and the head remained. While this did smell “beer like” from the beginning, I was disappointed in the overall, despite that I like & enjoy Belgians from time to time.
St. Peters – Suffolk, United Kingdom: G-Free: Described as clean, crisp gluten-free pilsner style lager, American Amarillo hops add finish aroma of citrus. This beer smelled the hoppiest out of the bottle to me, and the closest to “real” beer as any of the three. With an ABV of 4.2%, I found this choice ultimately the most drinkable and palatable. In the glass it had a moderate head at pour that quickly dissipates and leaves no lacing. The flavor was close to an ale with a warm bourbon tone. This would pair nicely with more determined food choices, and would carry well from summer into fall.
I was pleasantly surprised at the gluten free beer experience. I admit, I *was* skeptical. But there you go! Two out of three were palatable – and while I did avoid purchasing the one which Shawn very clearly stated was awful (I won’t tell you which one) I would almost willingly drink the New Grist or the G-Free again if I found myself away from regular beers. I said almost. willingly.
I’m happy to report that as a dyed in the wool lover of craft beers, there are some solid choices on the market for those who are gluten free… And it gives me delight in knowing that there will also soon be a gluten free brewery (Harvester Brewing) right here in Portland… That’s where I’ll place my bets for great gluten free choices.
In the meantime, don’t forget about the other three beers in my six pack… and tomorrow’s picks for the 2nd week of Oregon Craft beer month! Stay tuned!
If you like what you see on Milwaukie Rules!, please consider becoming our Facebook Fan, signing up for our newsletter, following us on Twitter and/or linking to us from your website or blog. We need your help to spread the word so we can keep it up.