Saturday, September 6, 2008

As Near-Bear as Not-Beer Can Get

Another rising trend in the world of American craft beer stretches the definition of beer to its very limits. This is the appearance of gluten-free beers on shelves, beer made without the traditional malt or grain products. A relatively young and very narrow specialty product, these gluten-free beers are seeing a toe-hold in the American craft beer market.

Gluten is a sticky protein that develops from wheat and related grains such as rye, barley or oats. It is the same substance that gives bread or pizza dough its chewy mouthfeel. Unfortunately, sufferers of celiac disease have a condition in which their small intestine becomes inflamed in the presence of gluten, leading to a host of uncomfortable symptoms and nutritional disorders. Presently, no cure exists except a lifetime of a dedicated gluten-free diet.

An estimated 1 out of every 133 people in the United States suffers from celiac disease. This is enough to merit a commercial response, and the American craft brewing scene is as inventive as they come. However, it does pose a rather major problem for brewers as malted grains are the largest ingredient (besides water) used in making beer.

The leading malt alternative in brewing presently is sorghum, a grass commonly grown for animal feed. Sorghum lacks the protein that becomes gluten when worked but still has enough sugars and fiber to be used as a foodstuff. It is a major crop outside of the Western world, used for porridge, couscous and unleavened breads and cakes. Americans are probably most familiar with it as sorghum syrup or molasses, popular in the South as an analogue of the North’s maple syrup.

Of course, yeast love and need sugar, and are not so particular as to its origin, so sorghum makes them as happy as any grain. Individuals with celiac disease have no problem with hops, so that flavor ingredient presents no difficulties, and water is a neutral and flavorless component. Thus, the only real difference between regular craft beer and gluten-free beer is the grain bill. But what a difference that can make.

I have tried several commercial gluten-free beers—mainly out of curiosity—and I find few that I can recommend. The flavor profiles are very limited by the lack of traditional grains and the flavors derived from their roasting or caramelization in the boil. Residual tastes range from being too sugary (as in table sugar) to saccharine (as in artificial sweetener). Although rarely horrible, some of the strange and unfamiliar off-flavors can be quite off-putting.

Styles available at present are very limited; most commercial versions are no more than amber ales or simple lagers. To maximize their market, few brands are pushing the hop profile, which could be a great assist to this type of beer. The stronger hops flavors in pale ales or IPAs might mask some of the more undesirable components and leave the resulting beer closer to traditional styles.

Some of the best of the gluten-free choices are from outside the United States, but a few domestic craft brewers are catching on to the trend. Lake Front Brewery of Wisconsin produces a gluten-free beer, and one of the oldest of the style is Bard’s Tale Beer of California, which claims to be the first to develop gluten-free beers in the States. The best that I have found currently is Redbridge, an Anheuser-Busch product; it is actually clean enough not to immediately come across as a nonstandard beer.

Regrettably, gluten-free beers are not a variety that excels in flavor or that are highly prized or sought by the craft beer public. Whether they ever will be remains to be seen, but the limitations of using none of the traditional grains severely handicaps their quality and potential. But if you are an individual with celiac disease or some other related food sensitivity, these beers can be an answer to a prayer.

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