Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gluten-Free Beer

This weekend I blew out my knee playing with my kids; don't know all the details yet, but it's probably one of those surgery things. Anyway, sitting in a chair, feeling sorry for myself, provided the perfect opportunity/excuse to crack open a bottle of Founder's Devil Dancer Triple IPA. This beer weighs in at a whopping 13% alcohol by volume and it is simply incredible. If someone hasn’t tried homebrewing they have no idea how hard it is to do a 13% alcohol beer that is that perfect and clean, with nothing poking out. Big beers like that are very hard to pull off, with a lot of technical challenges. This one was smooth and pristine, even as it warmed to room temperature which is where flaws really begin to show. It is not at all complex—my guess is that the grain bill is very simple and that Founder's utilized a California Ale yeast strain which ferments very clean. Distinctively sweet, but not cloyingly so, with a perfect high hop level to balance that sweetness—Devil Dancer has a thick mouthfeel and a distinct alcohol presence that is warming but never harsh. Absolutely incredible and by all means one of the best barley wines (or triple IPA, if you want to go with the new-fangled nomenclature) I have ever had. Highly recommended if you can get it locally (which, alas, I cannot—I won this bottle in a bet.) I do not recommend tearing up your knee just to have an excuse, but if you do then this beer certainly represents a significant consulation.

Now, to the main topic of this posting. A reader "eramlow" wrote in the comm boxes:

Hi - Does anyone know of a beer made without barley/hops? I acquired a taste for beer at the same time I found out I was allergic to barley. I got emergency room sick from Hops Bar and Grill best Barley beer...Is any other grain a good substitute for barley? Would it still be considered beer? Thanks!

This a very interesting posting and it piqued my curiosity. My understanding is that usually when somebody gets very sick from beer it is caused by an allergy to gluten, which is present in the barley which is the primary ingredient in beer. If somebody was allergic both to barley/gluten and hops, well that would probably eliminate the category of beer entirely.

But a gluten allergy alone still leaves the field somewhat open. I have seen gluten-free beers on the shelf for a couple of years now and have also seen articles regarding homebrewing gluten-free beers, so this posting prompted a little more research on my part.

First, some practical exposure. I traipsed home with a six-pack of "New Grist" gluten-free beer from Lakefront Brewery ( This beer won a gold ribbon in the Experimental Beer category at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival, so I thought it stood a good chance of being at least representative of what one might expect from a good gluten-free beer. (And yes, it is considered beer, which is the general label applied to any non-distilled alcoholic beverage that is made from malted grain.)

New Grist poured very pale and had a grassy aroma. There's also a faint green apple aroma there and this note carries through to the aftertaste. My wife and I agree that this beer both smells and tastes a bit like our homemade hard cider. (In fact, if I was suddenly struck with gluten intolerance I would probably switch over to hard cider.) After you swallow, way on the back of the tongue there is a faint bubblegum note. The beer has no head retention at all. Pleasant hop bitterness. It's refreshing. It's a decent summer beer.

Wikipedia has an interesting article on gluten-free beer ( which includes the note that "Statements from brewers such as Sapporo, show that their scientists feel confident that their product is non-harmful to those who are gluten intolerant." My guess is that Sapporo relies heavily on rice as a major fermentable and it's pretty thin.

Apparently, however, there are more robust beers made without gluten and a surpisingly large number are reviewed here, I would be interested in trying some of the more highly rated ones, but they're not available in my area.

In terms of homebrewing, you can brew a gluten-free beer but it becomes a lot more difficult. A number of interesting recipes can be found at and a fairly detailed article on the various techniques involved can be found at the Brew Your Own site, "Gluten-Free Brewing" (By the way, I subscribe to Brew Your Own magazine and can recommend it.) Judging by that article, it looks as if extract brewing is the way to go--only the most intrepid homebrewer would brew from all grain, since at this point that involves malting your own sorghum (or other non-glutenous grain) and then conducting a very technically challenging triple decoction mash to convert the starches in that grain to fermentable sugars.

The bottom line is that someone who is allergic to barley/gluten can indeed continue to brew and drink beer, but that beer will have a decidedly different character from beer brewed from barley. If it was me, I would probably switch my emphasis to wine and hard cider and take the loss of my enjoyment of barley-based beer (and single malt scotch!) as a substantial sacrifice to offer up.


Dru said...

I'm not sure I would trust the taste of a panel that would recommend and give an award to Ramapo. It tastes like someone peed in a bottle. I haven't found any of my celiac or non-celiac friends who disagree with that assessment. New Grist is much better but still has a long way to go to taste like a real beer. Too bad they didn't have Bard's available to taste. I've had samples and found it to be the closest yet to real beer. Redbridge is o.k., too, but not as good as Bard's.

Don said...

I can't say I'm particularly interested in gluten-free beer, but I am interested in cider. I tried to make a batch a couple of years ago. I got about 10-gallons of cider from a local orchard. 5 went to straight cider and 5 to cyser. The cyser was excellent, but the cider didn't work. It fermented to a completely dry, flat awfulness. What kind of yeast do you use for cider?

PalmHQ said...


Well, I can't say that my cider is really that different from yours. That's the problem with hard cider; it ferments out to nothing. I have used several kinds of yeast: Red Star Côte des Blancs, Lavlin ICV D-47, and also the WYeast "Sweet Mead" yeast which is supposed to leave some residual sugar. Feggedaboudit! It's still as dry as bone.

However, I understand that part of the problem is that we don't use the right kinds of apples. Back in Merry Old England and even here in the early days of the country, hard cider was the most popular drink. But they had special varieties of apples grown specifically for hard cider. The varieties we press and use today are mostly for fresh eating and secondarily for sweet cider, which is a different animal altogether. I plan on planting some trees for hard cider apples next year, especially at least one Golden Russet (you can get these old timey varieties at Fedco Trees,

If you want to drink the hard cider still (non-carbonated) then it's no problem. You just add a little potassium sorbate, which inhibits yeast activity, and then add back some high quality apple juice when you bottle the cider, to add back some sweetness. If you don't use the sorbate, you'll get a secondary fermentation in the bottle and have potential bottlebombs.

Another thing we do that it actually quite delicious is mix our hard cider with 7-Up. That sweetens it, but the drink retains a nice appley essence.

If you want straight sparkling cider, your options are more limited. If you have a kegging system for your homebrew (I do) then you can just use the sorbate as above, add back some apple juice for flavor and sweetness, then force carbonate using your CO2 tank.

Otherwise, the only way to get carbonation is to add back some juice/sugar and slap the cap on. And the bottom line is that you'll get a carbonated cider, but it'll be dry and relatively tasteless because the yeast will just eat up that additional sugar.

How do the commercial versions do it? They filter out the yeast, then sweeten, then bottle with force carbonation.

KristineFranklin said...

Ah. Now I know the REAL reason you converted :-)

I'm a Woodpecker hard cider girl myself, but reading all your posts makes me feel adventurous. BTW, I found your link at my son's blog - is the world small, or what?

Don said...

I guess I'll stick with cyser. (A month or so to go until the local orchard has cider - hopefully I'll get myself to rack the batch of mead i've got going to secondary before then).

PalmHQ said...

Hi Kristine, good to hear from you. You're not the only one to suspect some ulterior motives for my conversion ;o).

don, speaking of mead, this past Saturday racked two gallons of mead onto some fresh cranberries. I'm hoping that perhaps by Christmas next year I'll have some tasty holy-day mead.

Anonymous said...

just an update. merchant duvin just
started carrying Green's, which was listed in one of your links. i dont know where in WI you are but here's a link to their distributors...

for those in the portland area -
belmont station carries 2 of the Green's.

keep up the good work!

Alyn said...

Good words.