Article written by Caitlyn Williams
Let’s be honest. Being intolerant to gluten didn’t exactly make me the life of the party in the college beer scene. “Sorry, I’m allergic,” I would bashfully respond when challenged to a game of beer pong. Now in the “real world” beer is everywhere. There are weekend festivals and tastings, barbeques with friends and specialty stores all over the world. It is cruel and unusual punishment to have to turn down a bottle of Saranac Brewery’s Pomegranate Wheat in the summer or Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale in the fall.
Gluten-free beer is a growing trend in the United States and even around the world. More and more people are realizing they are gluten intolerant or even have Celiac disease. In order to make gluten-free beer, barley (the only traditional ingredient in beer with gluten) is substituted with other “wheat-like” substances such as buckwheat, sorghum or rice. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and it’s related species include barley, rye, and triticale. It is estimated that about 1 in 133 people has Celiac disease, an autoimmune response to the protein causing a blunting of the villi of the small intestine. This significantly decreases absorption of nutrients by the small intestine often leading to malnutrition and other unpleasant symptoms. Diagnosing Celiac disease is not always so straightforward and in my case, was inconclusive. What was clear, however, was that when I ate products with gluten in them, I was very sick. So after beginning a gluten-free diet 5 years ago, I felt that a part of my life was over. Being an avid baker and food-lover, I was sure that I would never find a warm chocolate chip cookie worth eating ever again or even a nice cold beer to enjoy with my friends. What I didn’t realize is that there are approximately 3.2 million people who cannot drink beer like me.
After I spent a significant time mourning the loss of wheat in my life, I began to view my intolerance as a challenge. I have made it my mission to find ways to eat and drink happily alongside my friends. Wine is my default drink when I am looking for something special, but there are many situations that wine just doesn’t satisfy me. After all, who wants to be drinking a glass of wine while watching a baseball game or sitting on the beach with a bunch of friends in the summertime? I have explored hard cider for alternatives and have been quite pleased with what I have found (Woodchuck and Magners top the list). Yet, while I have enjoyed several different ciders, sometimes they are just a little too sweet for me. What I would really love is a nice, cold, crisp beer.
There is a huge market for gluten-free beers and it is not just gluten that makes a beer taste the way it does, but the other ingredients and the care that goes into the production. I can assure you that there is nothing comparable to the feeling of eating or drinking something that has been forbidden for so long. If craft breweries really are dedicated to the pure joy of beer, I certainly hope that they recognize how happy they could make millions of people, just like me, by simply experimenting with a different grain or two (or none at all). Let’s see what could happen!
Redbridge: This beer, Owned by Anheuser-Busch, is probably the most well known and popular of the gluten-free beers (brewed using sorghum). It pours a light amber color with a white head that slides into the beer slowly leaving very little lacing on the glass. The aroma is hard to place and has a strange malty character to it (it wasn’t bad though). The taste was a little lifeless (typical of an Anheuser-Busch product). There was a sweet beginning, almost like molasses, then a bite from the hops, then a crisp sweet aftertaste. Heavy carbonation throughout that tickles your tongue. If you enjoy your beer sweet and drinkable (and gluten-free) this is the beer for you.
Bard’s Gold: “The original sorghum malt beer” (or at least that’s what the box says) this beer pours a nice, deep honey color with little to no head. Sweet molasses and brown sugar fill your nose. There is a strange “bready” taste to this beer with some caramel mixed in. Very similar to Redbridge in flavor, sweet with not much else going on. Also, heavily carbonated which takes away from any other flavors that could be present.
Green’s Triple Blonde Ale: Probably the best example of a “craft gluten-free beer”. Green’s entire beer portfolio is filled with the more experimental side of gluten-free (using sorghum, rice, buckwheat and millet all together in their beers). This beer pours a deep orange color with a small head that fades quickly. The nose is filled with a very nice fruity and almost sour aroma. The first sip is filled with heavy fruit flavor but is then attacked by the high alcohol content (8.5% ABV). Once the palate gets used to it though the fruity, sweet flavors take over. There is also a nice peach quality to this beer. Much less carbonation when compared to Redbridge or Bard’s, probably because it’s bottle refermented (not force carbonated). Definitely a higher quality beer that is a great option for those looking to get more out of their beer yet still saying gluten-free.
Green’s Discovery Amber Ale: Still haven’t found a full-flavored gluten-free beer? Look no further. This beer pours a nice copper color, with a full, thick head that refuses to go away. Sugar and light cherry aromas fill the nose. The first sip is crisp but not too sweet and mixes nicely with a light hop bitterness. The sorghum and buckwheat characteristics are hard to put a finger on but add to the complex flavors of this beer. It finishes with a citrus sweet flavor. The 6% ABV doesn’t push it either and the alcohol is undetectable. Green’s does it again, a great gluten-free gem.
St. Peter’s G-Free: Brewed using sorghum in the UK, this beautiful caramel-colored beer has a small, airy head that produces lime and hop aromas. Mildly sweet taste with hints of citrus and mandarin. A hoppy, bitter character finishes off this beer and lingers during the aftertaste but doesn’t overwhelm the palate. Take another sip, at only 4.2% ABV this is a fantastic beer to take you through the entire night.
Other gluten-free beers include: New Grist (Lakefront Brewery), everything brewed by Green’s and New Planet, a new Strawberry beer by Dogfish Head coming soon and other regional beers (check your local brewery or brewpub).
Overall, gluten-free beers don’t always taste exactly like “normal beer” but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They provide a fantastic alternative for those allergic to wheat who want to “grab a cold one”. Beer should be available to everyone no matter what their allergies are. Hopefully, gluten-free beers will allow more people to understand and be a part of the simple of of having a beer.
Caitlyn Williams recently graduated from Hamilton College with a concentration in neuroscience. She is currently working as an AmeriCorps/Community HealthCorps member, developing and implementing a health education curriculum in a school district outside of New York City. She plans to attend medical school in the future. Caitlyn is very sensitive to gluten and has been living a gluten-free diet for the past 5 years.