“We want to raise the bar,” he tells me, his eyes betraying the toughness of his brewer's exterior and the shaved sides of his head. His eyes are sweet, kind, and as blue as the sunglasses he’s propped on his head as we talk about what’s become his life’s work.
Jason "Ig Jones" Yerger is the head brewer of Ghostfish Brewing, a 100% gluten free brewery and pub in Seattle, Washington. He's about as guarded as a vacant lot. He wants to spill his secrets, in fact, he’s dying to.
He sees the gluten free brewing segment of the industry as a rising tide that’s in need of more ships. More ships equal more malt, more options, and better beer for everyone. It wasn’t enough to make “good for gluten free,” it wasn’t enough to pour a pint that was just acceptable without better options. The goal was to make a beer that could win awards up against barley-based beer – “We always knew we could. We just had to figure it out.”
It started years ago, in the lives of three men yet to join forces in a common goal. For two of them it was catalyzed by dealing with the hit of celiac disease and the limitations it presented: one for himself, one for his wife and beer-drinking-partner-in-crime. It was a challenge that was equal parts entrepreneurial and philanthropic. They wanted to crack the code on great gluten free beer and give those secrets to the masses.
So, what is the secret? For now, it’s malted millet and a great palate.
Years of trial, error, sampling, and shifting have led this superstar team to one superstar grain: millet. They waded through the land of back sweetening, sourgum, elaborate wort procedures, before rejecting them all as decidedly inferior. It turns out that it’s just not that complicated. Going back to the beginning and swapping malted barley for malted millet unlocked the ability to produce beer that was truly good beer.
Of course making any good beer is more complicated that simply replacing one grain for another but the simple distinction is merely that: millet for barley. One malted grain for another. This begs the question for all of us gluten loving craft beer devotees: if the beer is great does it matter if the malt is malted barley or malted millet? And this also brings us to the taste test: is the beer, in fact, good craft beer? With the awards piling up in both the Gluten Free categories, as well as categories that pit these millet beers against barley beer, it’s worth a taste to figure out why.
I settle into a seat at the bar on a slow Thursday afternoon, one by one the tasters come my way.
First up, an Apricot Sour. A collaboration between Ghostfish brewing and a traditional barley brewery, Revelation Brewing out of Delaware. It isn’t good, it’s great. It’s not “good for gluten free” it’s a great beer, it’s a beautifully soured, well balanced, beer that has no hint of any missing element. Because it’s not missing anything. Water, malt, yeast, and hops – the core elements in beer – are all there. It just so happens that the malted grain isn’t barley.
Next up: the heavily decorated Watchstander Stout, a metaled darling that has inspired a heavy dose of buzz worthy gossip. I have my doubts, Stouts are a hard style to brew without restrictions. This is the test, the bar which must be cleared before you can be declared a great brewery, limitations be damned. It clears the bar by a mile, shockingly so.
The beer samples keep coming, all well within the range of good to excellent. It leaves me wondering: is this the future of beer? Not gluten free, per se, but malting grains other than barley. Is barley used because it’s better or because it’s traditional? In a landscape that’s constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries of definitions, is malt the next barrier to be demolished?
It’s possible, but only because the code on great alternative grain beer is being cracked right now in Seattle..