Free Your Beer
The proof, as always, is in the pint, and today’s gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer is, refreshingly, more about what’s there than what’s not.
Today’s gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer is, refreshingly, more about what’s there than what’s not.
HELLO, MY NAME IS Dave, and I like gluten. There, I said it.
Gluten supplies structure to sourdough, delivers a satisfying snap to Neapolitan pizza, and lends that alluring al dente bite to pasta. I have the luxury of enjoying products made from this plant protein, but according to the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health, about 0.7 percent of the population experiences a dangerous immune reaction to gluten. For sufferers of celiac disease, even trace amounts of the stuff can cause serious health problems.
Not long ago, a diagnosis of celiac disease meant navigating a minefield of potential triggers, from such clear culprits as bread and cake to less obvious cereal offenders such as soy sauce and even prescription medications. But now celiac sufferers have options as gluten-free and gluten-reduced products increasingly find shelf space alongside their conventional counterparts.
The surest sign, however, that an idea’s time has come is its infiltration of the liquor store. Gluten-free beer used to taste, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, almost, but not quite, entirely unlike beer. But innovative craft brewers have stepped up their gluten-free games and are developing celiac-friendly ales and lagers that are anything but ersatz.
The English word “gluten” comes directly from the Latin gluten, meaning “glue,” and at one time referred to any kind of sticky substance. For this reason, short-grain sticky rice is misleadingly described as glutinous, even though rice is free of gluten. In modern parlance, gluten refers to a specific protein found in wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and other cereal grasses.
Biologically speaking, gluten is a sort of über compound, consisting of the two proteins gliadin and glutenin. The chemical details aren’t terribly important, except to know that gliadin and glutenin are the critical constituents of wheat that lend structure and elasticity to bread dough. Unfortunately for those with celiac disease, it’s precisely these proteins that cause gluten-associated ailments.
Gluten concentrations are commonly measured on a weight-by-weight basis in parts per million (ppm). Whole wheat bread is about 100,000 ppm, pasta is
closer to 110,000 ppm, and pure gluten is 1 million ppm. Gluten levels in beer are sometimes expressed in milligrams per liter (mg/l), which is almost identical to ppm since beer is mostly water, and a liter of water weighs a kilogram. When it comes to beer, the casual observer can safely interchange ppm and mg/l with no practical consequence.
It’s commonly stated that a food with fewer than 20 ppm gluten may be called gluten-free, which is the threshold endorsed in the Codex Alimentarius, a joint effort between the World Health Organization and the United Nations. The domestic reality is, however, somewhat more complex. Three regulatory organizations in the United States government share federal oversight for labeling what we put into our mouths, and each regulates alcoholic beverages according to its own particular idiom.
▪ The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) holds the keys to the organic label, but that’s about it.
▪ The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, regulates beverages made from sorghum, rice, and other non-barley grains, whether or not said beverages contain hops. Importantly, the FDA makes the rules for most products that wish to use the gluten-free label.
▪ The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the Department of the Treasury, is responsible for the labels on beer made from malted barley and hops, which is very nearly all of it. A barley-based beer that contains no hops (e.g., gruit) falls to the FDA in theory, but brewers accustomed to TTB regulations often include a small dose of hops in an otherwise non-hopped product to avoid having to deal with the FDA.
The easiest way to know who regulates your beer is to check for the presence of a Nutrition Facts label: The FDA requires it, but the TTB doesn’t. Why is this important? Because the FDA and TTB have different approaches to gluten labeling for beer. Here’s the FDA’S position:
The final rule defines “gluten-free” as meaning that the food either is inherently gluten-free; or does not contain an ingredient that is: (1) a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt, wheat);
(2) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or
(3) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food.
Also, any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm. So, by the FDA’S definition, products that have been processed to remove gluten and test at 20 ppm or lower can carry the “gluten-free” label.
The TTB takes a much stricter position and withholds gluten-free endorsement unless the original ingredients were themselves all free of gluten. No exceptions. So, wine and vodka can proudly carry the label, but a barley-based, gluten-reduced beer can’t, even if its gluten levels measure below 20 ppm. Instead, the TTB permits use of a statement to indicate that the product was processed to reduce gluten
One reason that [protease enzyme] is so effective is that malting and mashing help degrade gluten proteins. Proteins in well-modified malts will have been degraded during the malting process … serving the same function as the moldderived protease enzymes.
levels. Here’s how the TTB puts it:
TTB will allow use of the statement “Processed/treated/crafted to remove gluten,” together with a qualifying statement to inform consumers that:
(1) the product was made from a grain that contains gluten;
(2) there is currently no valid test to verify the gluten content of fermented products; and
(3) the finished product may contain gluten.
Because the current tests used to measure the gluten content of fermented products have not been scientifically validated, such statements may not include any reference to the level of gluten in the product. TTB believes that the qualifying statement is necessary to avoid misleading consumers about the gluten content of these products because of the serious health consequences associated with the consumption of gluten by individuals with celiac disease.
Beer Made from Glutenfree Ingredients
Individuals who need to stay away from any and all gluten will no doubt prefer to stick to beer that is assuredly gluten-free, which brings us to what I like to call the transitive property of gluten: From gluten-free ingredients comes gluten-free beer. Mashing sorghum, rice, maize, proso millet, buckwheat, or other naturally gluten-free grains lets brewers create gluten-free wort. The Colorado Malting Company even sells malted sunflower seeds, which contribute complex proteins that promote head retention and foam stability. In addition to gluten-free grains and seeds, various brewing sugars also frequently find their way into the brew.
Just as with barley-based beer, the sugary wort is then boiled with hops, cooled, inoculated with yeast, fermented, conditioned, and packaged. The result is a beverage that has never contained any gluten whatsoever. New Planet Pale Ale, for example, lists its ingredients as water, sorghum and brown rice extracts, molasses, tapioca maltodextrin, caramel color, hops, and yeast.
Brands such as New Planet, Bard’s, and Redbridge, as well as products such as Dogfish Head Tweason’ale and Lakefront Brewing New Grist fall under this category. These all carry the FDA’S official gluten-free seal of approval.
A more recent development in delivering celiac-friendly beer comes to us courtesy of Aspergillus niger, or black mold. If you’ve ever thrown out an onion that’s covered in dark splotches, then you’ve witnessed this ubiquitous fungus firsthand. A. niger creates an enzyme called protease that degrades proteins, including gluten. This enzyme is available commercially as White Labs WLN400 Clarity Ferm.
Originally developed to reduce chill haze, Clarity Ferm also dramatically reduces gluten levels, often to well below the 20 ppm threshold. It is in this class of gluten-reduced beers that we find Stone Brewing Company’s Delicious IPA. For Mitch Steele, Stone’s brewmaster, developing a gluten-reduced product isn’t just business; it’s personal.
“I was talking with Chris White from White Labs a couple of years ago because we were having some chill haze issues at Stone,” says Mitch. “Chris told me about this new enzyme that could reduce chill haze and … also reduce gluten content at the same time. Shortly afterwards, my father-in-law was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance.”
Mitch’s father-in-law also happened to enjoy a good beer, so Mitch had the idea
to try Clarity Ferm at Stone. Using the company’s flagship IPA, a trained sensory panel found no discernable taste difference between the IPA brewed with Clarity Ferm and without. But the sample made with the enzyme tested at fewer than 10 ppm of gluten.
The timing just happened to work out with a challenge that Stone CEO Greg Koch had presented to Stone’s brewers. “Greg had charged us with creating an IPA that would be called Delicious,” notes Steele. “After brewing a number of test batches that were good but didn’t quite live up to the name, I had Chris Ketchum try out a single hops brew with El Dorado. That’s when I knew we were on to something.”
Combining El Dorado with Lemondrop hops, Delicious IPA delivers on the promise its name makes. Initial impressions are of lemon candy with herbal overtones, but as the beer warms, grassy, even haylike notes begin to emerge. It’s an IPA drinker’s IPA, and samples consistently come back with less than 10 ppm gluten.
Perhaps most importantly, Mitch’s father-in-law can enjoy Delicious IPA with no adverse health effects.
Omission Beer, brewed by Portland’s Widmer Brothers, follows a similar enzymatic process to create very low gluten lagers, pale ales, and IPAS that taste like their full-gluten counterparts.
“We have been vigilant about brewery segregation and accurate testing,” notes Joe Casey, brewmaster and cofounder of Omission Beer. “The other challenge we have tackled is consumer education and working with various government regulators to provide as much information as possible … to remain consistently transparent about our brewing process. We were definitely prepared to have a strong focus on education … to make Omission successful, and the brand has lived up to that expectation.”
One reason that Clarity Ferm is so effective is that malting and mashing actually help degrade gluten proteins. Proteins in well-modified malts will have been degraded during the malting process, while less modified malts are often taken through a protein rest. These processes encourage the action of proteolytic enzymes, which serve the same function as the mold-derived proteases.
But even with Clarity Ferm, Casey recommends staying away from wheat and unmalted grains. “Wheat malt and raw wheat are not something that we are willing to include in Omission products,” he says. “It simply has too much gluten and is too much of a red flag for consumers. Our process has proven itself successful using 100 percent barley malt as our base grain because a huge reduction of gluten occurs during the malting process. Using highly undermodified malt, such as dextrin malts, could also be a problem.”
Homebrewing Gluten - Reduced and Gluten-free Beer
Of the many reasons to homebrew, not having to deal with the FDA and TTB must certainly rank near the top. You’re free to do what you like, as long as you’re willing to accept the consequences of any risks you take. The first step, therefore, in creating your own gluten-reduced or gluten-free beer at home is this: Decide how critical gluten levels are to your health and lifestyle.
If you choose to brew with traditional malts and want to reduce the amount of gluten in your beer, all you need to do is dose cooled wort with 10 ml (one vial) of White Labs Clarity Ferm when you pitch your yeast. The enzyme will digest gluten proteins while the yeast ferments the malt sugars.
“To get your product tested for gluten content will cost about $75–100 per test,” Casey notes. “If one is truly looking to have his/her homebrew be gluten-free, the only way to know is to submit samples to a lab for testing, and the best program would be to test each batch.”
It’s probably impractical for homebrewers to test every batch for gluten, but if you’re curious how Clarity Ferm affects a specific recipe, it might be worth sending off samples from different batches brewed using the same method. The aggregate results can offer clues as to the average gluten content of your recipe.
If, however, you suffer from celiac disease and must exclude gluten at all costs, then your safest bet is to stick with gluten-free ingredients altogether. Sorghum extract has long been the favored fermentable for gluten-free brewers because of its ready availability. It weighs in at around 35 to 37 gravity points per pound per gallon (ppg), so each pound
Stone Brewing’s Delicious IPA benefitted from internal blind sensory testing that found no difference between their flagship IPA brewed with Clarity Ferm and without.