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Ditch the gluten, keep the beer

I do a fair amount of shopping at health food stores, so gluten-free foods are nothing new to me. But a few years ago, I noticed a beer at Rollin' Oats Market called New Grist. The beer, made by Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery, is brewed from sorghum and rice instead of malted barley or wheat. I picked up a six-pack.

The flavor was new to me, and not one recognizable as beer, to be honest. It was light and a bit tart, almost cider-like. There was a mild hop profile, giving the impression of a light American lager, but with a lot more character. Although it was nothing like the beer that I knew and loved, I knew that it was sure to be a hit with some.

You see, many people suffer from an intolerance to gluten. Nearly all beer contains barley or wheat, both of which contain gluten.

But a few forward-thinking brewers such as Lakefront have begun to tap into the gluten-free market. Some attempt to recreate the traditional beer taste; others are in a league all their own. I've tried many of these in the past, but I picked up a few fresh ones for a closer look.

Bard's Tale, billed as "America's first gluten-free sorghum beer," is made entirely from sorghum, water, hops and yeast. The hops are Hallertauer and Tettnang, which are commonly found in European lagers. Interestingly, Bard's actually malts their sorghum, in a process similar to the malting of barley used in traditional beer. It's very light and slightly acidic, with good carbonation. The malted sorghum gives the beer a sweet, "malty" flavor that works well with the style.

Next up was Redbridge, a widely available entry from Anheuser-Busch. The aroma was similar to an average American malt liquor, and the flavor was milder than other gluten-free beers I've tried. It's made with sorghum and corn syrup (not the high-fructose variety), and there is definitely more of a recognizable "beer" flavor here. A mild hop profile was apparent in the finish, reminding me of Budweiser's American Ale.

Spanish brewery Estrella Damm takes a different approach with its Daura lager, actually brewing it from barley. The brewery uses a proprietary process to remove enough gluten to get the finished product under 6 parts per million, well under the 20ppm threshold that many consider safe for those avoiding gluten. And yes, it tastes like beer. It's a bit sweet/malty, in the style of many European lagers. Gluten-free drinkers hoping to recapture that nostalgic beer flavor will probably want to check this out.

Then we have Belgium's De Proef Brouwerij's entry. The brand, Green's, is available in three different styles, an attempt to merge traditional Belgian brewing styles with a gluten-free recipe of millet, buckwheat, sorghum and rice. Green's is considerably stronger than its American counterparts, boasting ABVs of up to 8.5 percent. Like New Grist and Bard's, the three styles have some tart wine/cider flavors and a fairly light body. Many consider these the best of the bunch.

Finally, while it isn't beer, hard cider is a great gluten-free option, and many cidermakers are attempting to capture some of the craft beer market with high-end options and creative variations on their flagship products. For example, Woodchuck regularly releases specialty ciders, such as the spring seasonal (flavored with maple syrup), summer seasonal (flavored with blueberries) and the Barrel Reserve Select series. The latter's current release is stronger than the average cider at 6.9 percent ABV and is aged in white-oak bourbon barrels, imparting a sweet, smoky flavor to the cider. It's quite good.

Crispin cider, a relatively new entry, also has a few unique options. Its Artisanal Reserve series features a few options clearly meant to appeal to the craft beer audience. The Saint, a high-gravity (6.9 percent ABV) cider, uses organic maple syrup and Belgian Trappist ale yeast in the recipe. Another interesting release, the Lands­downe, uses organic molasses and dry Irish stout yeast.

While many current gluten-free entries will mainly appeal to those who will purchase them out of necessity rather than preference, I expect some interesting new styles to emerge from the gluten-free market. Adventurous and curious drinkers of all types should take note.

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Ditch the gluten, keep the beer 07/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:17pm]
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