beer column

my notes from tuesday's beer column on cbc radio's on the coast
topic:  gluten-free beers

A couple of weeks ago I answered a listener’s question about wheat-free beer. Today I'd like to take you a little further down that road and talk about gluten-free beers.

The four basic ingredients in beer are barley, water, hops and yeast. Barley has gluten in it, so all beers following the Bavarian purity law will have gluten in them. Wheat is present in beers when called for by the recipe, such as in wit beers and hefeweizens, or sometimes as an adjunct. If you have a wheat intolerance you’ll have to be careful to choose pure beers to avoid wheat. If you are gluten intolerant though, you will have to find a gluten-free beer.

Gluten is a protein complex found in wheat (including kamut and spelt), barley and rye. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the surface of the small intestine that absorbs nutrients from food is damaged by gluten. It seems that more and more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. The only way to deal with celiac disease is to avoid gluten in foods, beverages, medications, vitamins, cosmetics – even the glue used on envelopes can contain gluten.
The silver lining of the growing number of people looking for gluten-free options is that brewers have responded and there are now quite a range of gluten-free beers on the market.

There are two different ways to make gluten-free beers. One school of gluten-free brewing involves using other grains such as buckwheat, quinoa, millet, rice, chestnuts, sorghum and certified gluten-free oats. The other school of brewing uses barley as the malt, but removes the gluten from it to end up below the allowable gluten threshold.

In the United States, the FDA considers foods containing less than or equal to 20 ppm to be gluten-free, which guideline is also followed by the current international Codex Alimentarius. In a commercial setting, the term gluten-free generally is used to indicate a tolerable level of gluten rather than a complete absence.

I underwent a grueling process of beer drinking to research this column.  Over several sessions, helped by friends, I covered a lot of gluten-free territory, but this is by no means an exhaustive list of gluten-free beers available in Vancouver.

I was provided with samples of some beers from importers, and found others at a local specialty beer store (Viti Wines & Lagers). Beerthirst provided me with Harvester pale ale and IPA; Untapped provided me with Glutenberg red ale, american pale ale and blond ale.  Both the Glutenberg and the Harvester beers are gluten-free because they never contained any barley to begin with. Glutenberg is made in Montreal and Harvester is from Portland.

The Glutenberg blonde ale pours a very light yellow, and is quite effervescent. It has a decidedly cider quality to it as opposed to a commercial lager. Its grains are millet and corn. At 4.5% abv this one would be great on a hot summer patio.

The Glutenberg american pale ale pours a light brown and is also quite effervescent. It tastes just like an american pale ale should, a little bit hoppy but with a very noticeable malt backbone.  The malts are millet, buckwheat, quinoa and corn, and its 5.5%.

The Glutenberg red ale pours a dark brown with quite a big head. Buckwheat, chestnut, millet and quinoa are the malts, molasses is added for flavour and colour. Its 5%, with a big malt profile - definitely maltier than I would expect of a red ale. Darker beer lovers will enjoy this one.  This one was my beer tasting buddy Carrie's favourite - for reference, her preferred beer styles are anything not too hoppy, stouts and porters.
These beers will be available on tap at the Alibi Room and the Naam restaurant in September. If you are going to the Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria, you can also try them there. In the meantime the specialty liquor stores are beginning to get them in - they come in tall-boy cans. 

I tasted the Glutenberg 8 as well. They call it an alternative ale, and it was. It tasted like a winter warmer, quite biscuity and malty. My taste-tester helper Lisa proclaimed this one her favourite – for reference, her favourite beer styles are stouts and porters. Viti currently carries the Glutenberg 8 in four-packs but this style is being discontinued so what’s there is all that’s left.

Harvester relies on locally grown chestnuts and hops, as well as oats and sorghum, to make its lineup of gluten-free beers.  Styles that are available in Vancouver include an IPA, a dark ale and my favorite, the pale ale.  They come in 650 ml bombers and are available at specialty liquor stores - the pale ale in quantity, the IPA and dark ale in more limited quantities.
The pale ale is citrusy, with a nutty nose courtesy of chestnuts.  It does not taste like a gluten-free beer.  I would drink this one just because its tasty.

I also sampled the Harvester IPA – it has an amazingly citrus nose but it didn’t grab me the way I like to be grabbed by a hoppy IPA. I really felt the absence of malts to balance out and pump up the hops. Would I have it again? Oh yes, but I won’t go out of my way to drink this when there are other amazing IPAs on offer.  If I had to go gluten-free though, this would be in my shopping cart for sure.

The pale ales though, I found that Harvester and Glutenberg have perfected this style.  My taste test buddy Bridget agreed - her preferred styles are IPAs and stouts.  I also love Omission’s pale ale. Omission makes their beer with low-protein barley that's treated with an enzyme that breaks down gluten and proteins. While Omission beers are below the established cutoff line for gluten-free products, they aren't 100% gluten-free, so proceed at your own risk with them. But if you can, do try them as the pale ale is a hoppy pleasure, and the lager is crisp and has my old favourite, citra hops in it.

I also tried a few other gluten-free beers in the following styles: lager, Belgian ale and a British bitter.

Spain's Daura is made with barley malt. The brewery uses a proprietary technique to remove gluten from barley malt (the amount of gluten is below the allowable threshold), and it tastes exactly like a commercial lager. Good news if that’s what you’re looking for, but not if you want a craft beer alternative.

Britain-based Green's makes beer without barley.  They focus on Belgian-style beers such as the dubbel that I sampled. It poured very effervescently and tasted of raisins and prunes. The Belgian yeast comes through nicely – if you’re in the market for a gluten-free Belgian, look no further.

Our least favourite beer of the tasting session was World Top's Against The Grain English bitter. We found it just didn’t have much flavour at all.  I can't vouch for how fresh our bottle was though...

Not part of the tastings, but a beer I have tried before, the Lakefront Brewing New Grist pilsner is one of the older gluten-free beers around. I didn’t include it in the taste test for reasons of time, but also because I recall not being very impressed with it when I tried it in the past.  It just didn't taste like beer to me, and I'm a pilsner fan.
So, to sum up, I'm glad I don't have to go gluten-free because I do love me a "real" beer.  For those who do need to go gluten-free, there are quite a few options available these days, most of which are really good beers.  I was very pleasantly surprised by just how good these beers are.  Thank the beer gods!


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