Gluten-free foods have vastly improved in taste and availability over the last decade. Breads, crackers, and pancake mixes made without gluten-containing ingredients are now common to most American grocery store shelves. But beer, long forbidden to the gluten-intolerant, has lagged in terms of true gluten-free alternatives, especially when it comes to flavor. While there are close to 80 gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer brands in the world, most of them are one-offs from traditional breweries and often hard to find. And seeing a gluten-free beer on tap at a bar is even rarer. As of now, there are only 13 entirely gluten-free breweries in the U.S., the majority of which are on the West Coast. And as for gluten-free beers that actually taste good? Until recently, that was like finding a needle in a haystack.
That’s changed in the last few years, with the country seeing an increase in craft breweries using alternative grains in place of glutenous (i.e., gluten-containing) barley, which is good news for the 1 percent of the U.S. population with celiac disease and the many more with intolerances or allergies.
But first, let’s take a step back: What exactly is gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer?
Traditional beer is produced using a malt typically made from barley, wheat, or rye, all of which contain gluten. Gluten-free beer substitutes those with other grains including sorghum, millet, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and oats. Gluten-reduced beer, on the other hand, uses an enzyme to break down most of the gluten in a traditionally barley-based beer. Brewers of gluten-reduced beers are required to measure their gluten content and come in at fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten in order to feature the gluten-reduced label. But that might not be enough for someone who has celiac disease or a severe sensitivity to gluten.
Until about five years ago, most gluten-free beers relied on sorghum, which has more of a sour flavor and tends to be why most people think gluten-free beer doesn’t taste good.
“Usually when people describe a ‘gluten-free flavor’ in beer, it’s because of sorghum grain,” says Ben Acord, master brewer at Evasion Brewing, a gluten-free dedicated brewery in McMinnville, Oregon. “We don’t like the flavor of sorghum and we don’t use it in our beers.”
Evasion, and many other gluten-free breweries across the country, source their malts from Grouse Malt House in Colorado, which opened in 2013. It offers more than 20 different products ranging from pale malts to dark roasts, from grains including millet, buckwheats, maize, oats, and quinoa.
“Our goal is to offer malt ingredients brewers need to make high-quality pilsners, ambers, stouts, Goses, and anything in between,” says Grouse founder Twila Soles. “Before Grouse, brewers looking to make a gluten-free beer only had a few tools to use—mainly rice and sorghum syrups. These are not ideal ingredients to make a range of high quality beer styles.”
Seattle’s Ghostfish Brewing was one of the first dedicated gluten-free breweries to eschew sorghum, followed by Alt Brew in Madison, Wisconsin, Moonshrimp Brewing in Portland, Oregon, and Holidaily Brewing in Golden, Colorado. Portland’s Ground Breaker Brewing, one of the country’s first dedicated gluten-free breweries, does use sorghum, but combines it with atypical ingredients like chestnuts and lentils to create a unique flavor. These brewers, along with newer ones like Evasion, Bierly Brewing (also in McMinnville), Divine Science Brewing in Anaheim, California, and Aurochs Brewing Company outside of Pittsburgh have been experimenting with alternative grains and their ratios to determine the right malt mix to create a solid beer. A successful and tasty gluten-free beer usually occurs when the brewer doesn’t try to mimic beer styles that rely on gluten-rich grains for their taste.
“If I give you a pale ale and it doesn’t taste like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, most people will think it’s an inferior product, and say, ‘Did you mess up somewhere in the fermentation?’” says Bob Keifer, founder of Divine Science. “People have this thing where they’re expecting a barley taste or a wheat taste and we’re using grains that don’t taste like those. You can get pretty close to certain styles with the right kind of layering but if I’m using millet, I have much more of a likelihood of you liking the beer if I call it a ‘milsner’ instead of a ‘pilsner.’”
Master cicerone Rich Higgins agrees. “Trying to brew a beer whose flavors are barley-forward (like a pilsner or a pale ale) without barley is an uphill battle, but there are so many flavor sources that drive the soul of other types of beer, and subtracting barley may not be a deal-breaker for these other beers. There are myriad flavors from dry hopping, ale yeast fermentation, wild fermentation, and barrel-aging that can certainly be achieved without barley and wheat, and it makes sense to me that you could brew a delicious, very successful gluten-free beer that is driven by these other flavors,” he explains.
Gluten-free craft brewers have learned that experimentation is key. “Using all of the obscure grains is really fun because you’re getting the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before,” says Acord.
At Evasion, Acord brews everything from a saison to an imperial stout to an IPA, and he experiments with aging beers in wine and brandy barrels, using wild yeast, and fiddling with adding locally foraged ingredients like blackberries and plums. He even made what he believes to be the first millet wine, instead of the more traditional barley wine. Recently, he made an imperial stout with vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon, raisins, toasted almonds, and house-roasted coffee, which was inspired by childhood breakfasts with his grandmother. Being located in Oregon’s wine country, Acord is also working on a farmhouse wine-beer hybrid made with Müller-Thurgau grapes and a pinot noir-barrel-aged Mexican-style lager.
Acord, who is allergic to wheat, is a certified cicerone and previously worked for Mikkeller in San Diego. He started Evasion with his brother-in-law, Erik Lapp, Erik’s brother Evan Lapp, and their father Craig Lapp when half their family was diagnosed with gluten intolerances. Once he realized sorghum didn’t give him the flavor he was seeking, he turned to millet.
“There’s a lot of different kinds of millet based on how it’s malted that gives it different qualities: sweetness and a toastiness that we kind of play around with to get the flavors we’re going for because, as you can see, our stout is dark and the IPA is kind of an amber-y hue and the kolsch is blush,” says Acord.
Indeed, Grouse offers more than a dozen types of millet, ranging from dark roasted millet malt to pale millet malt and everything in between. Evasion and Divine Science get their rice malts from Eckert Malting and Brewing in Chico, California, which roasts and malts multiple rice varieties as well as brews its own rice beer.
After going gluten-free in 2010, Divine Science’s Keifer spent years perfecting his recipes as a homebrewer before winning third place at the L.A. County Fair for his gluten-free IPA in 2016—it was up against traditional barley beers. He began brewing commercially in December 2018 and his understanding of how different grains react in the brewing process is key to his success.
“Barley’s a much heavier grain. By itself, barley is only 60- to 80-percent fermentable, versus gluten-free grains which can be up to 99-percent fermentable,” he explains. He adds dextrin malt to increase body and head retention to his Third Contact IPA, which he describes as a cross between a West Coast IPA and a brut IPA due to its drier quality. As for the name, it’s a solar eclipse reference: “When the sun breaches past the moon after totality, that’s called third contact—we’re trying to say that the dark ages of gluten-free beer are over in Southern California.”
It does seem like the dark ages of gluten-free beer are coming to an end, not just in Southern California, but across the country. “Gluten-sensitive people have been disenfranchised from the excitement of craft beer, and it’s the pioneering brewers of gluten-free beers who can allow underserved, gluten-sensitive drinkers to tap into the vast world of beer flavor and culture,” says Higgins. “The craft brewing revolution is all about pioneering, and the gluten-free realm is fair game and should invite legitimate beers.”
Keifer couldn’t agree more. “Let’s redefine what beer actually means. Let’s stop restricting ourselves and have some fun.”