Gluten Tag

The May/June 2012 issue of Zymurgy magazine includes an article entitled “Secrets of Gluten-Free Brewing”, by BellaOnline beer and brewing editor, Carolyn Smagalski. In it, she gives tips to homebrewers on ingredients for true gluten-free beers, and reports on gluten-free offerings from a number of commercial breweries including Strange Brewing Company in Denver and Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia. Even Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, ever the zymurgic Rick O’Connell, has adventurously entered the gluten-free ring with Tweason’ale, a champagne-like beer with sorghum, buckwheat honey, molasses, and strawberries.

It’s a great article, and interesting because I’ve always been curious about gluten-free brewing. First of all, I must stress that I am not a physician, nor am I an expert on gluten, gluten-free brewing, or food allergies and I cannot attest to the safety of any ingredient mentioned in this article. Please check with your physician before brewing or drinking a beer made with any ingredient mentioned here.

I don’t suffer from celiac disease, wheat allergies or any other kind of gluten intolerance. But I have friends who do, and I know it must be hard. What if my doctor ever told me I couldn’t drink beer anymore? What would I do? I could always put more energy into cider and mead, but beer is really my passion as a zyme lord. So my empathy glands pulsate to make good beer my gluten-free friends can drink, even though none have asked.

(Let’s ignore the question of “What if my doctor ever told me I couldn’t drink any alcohol anymore?” … but the answer, sadly, is: “Fetch the razor blades while I run the bathwater,” because to quote the immortal Buddy Holly, that’ll be the day when I die.)

Because gluten is present in most common grains, the key to gluten-free brewing is finding alternative sources of fermentable sugar. Barley, wheat, rye, oats and even spelt are off the table. But sorghum, buckwheat, corn, rice, millet, and quinoa are recommended alternatives. These grains may not yield as much sugar as brewers are used to, so it’s common to add other fermentables as well, such as honey or corn syrup. Hops are gluten-free, but yeast should be carefully selected, since most of them are grown in traditional barley wort (Lallemand’s Danstar beer yeast and Lalvin wine yeast product lines are listed by Smagalski as gluten-free, being grown in potato starch).

While sorghum has been used in gluten-free beers for years now, it’s notorious for being kinda … well, awful. I’ve never had one, but I’ve also never heard of anyone drinking a sorghum beer by choice. But other grains Smagalski listed were inspirations to me. I eat quinoa about twice a week, and would love to try it in beer. I don’t know much about buckwheat, but have been thinking about buckwheat honey in a mead: why not a gluten-free braggot of buckwheat and buckwheat honey?

There’s also a recipe for a chestnut beer in the article. Apparently chestnut starch can be converted to sugar, but must be “mashed” for 12 hours with added amylase enzyme powder – they don’t have enough diastatic power on their own. 12 hours is a long mash to start a brew day, but this might be a worth while experiment. Even without a specific need in my household for gluten-free beer, I smell a possible holiday brew in the cards. “Chestnuts Steeping in an Open Mash Tun Holiday Ale”? It’s catchy.

Anyone out there brewing gluten-free beers? I’d love to hear from  you, as this is something I really want to explore. Who’s up for an adventure?

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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

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