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 (http://www.newgrist.com/). 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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, http://www.glutenfreebeerfestival.com/available/available.html. 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 http://www.fortunecity.com/boozers/brewerytap/555/gfbeer/recipes.htm and a fairly detailed article on the various techniques involved can be found at the Brew Your Own site, "Gluten-Free Brewing" http://byo.com/feature/1589.html. (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.