Better taste, selection, availability. Three cheers for gluten-free beer!
Seven years ago, a diagnosis upended Pedro Gonzalez’s pizza and beer night. Gonzalez, of Boulder, Colorado, loved to quaff Indian pale ales and American pilsners, but when he learned he had celiac disease, he thought the condition would leave him out in the beerless cold. He tried a few gluten-free beers, “but none of them really wowed me,” he recalls. One of his best friends, Roy Emmons, a local brew master, was certain he could brew one better. He created a beer sans gluten that Gonzalez relished, and before long Gonzalez and his wife, Seneca Murley, were jumping headfirst into their very own gluten-free beer business, New Planet Beer Company.
“The name New Planet expresses our desire to do good deeds for the planet,” says Gonzalez, 53. In September 2009, they sold their first cold one, which they describe as a light ale. A hoppy Indian pale ale and a raspberry-infused beer are in the works—welcome additions to the lagers and ales increasingly available to those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
While beer can be crafted from any starch-based material, notably grains, the ingredients commonly used in the industry to give it the flavor and character most enjoyed by connoisseurs are barley and wheat. Unfortunately, these are off-limits for the burgeoning number of Americans intolerant to gliadin found in wheat and hordein, the “gluten” of barley. But as awareness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance has blossomed over the past few years, so has the availability of gluten-free suds. Most American breweries making gluten-free beer use sorghum as the primary ingredient, an old-world grass indigenous to Africa. In fact, sorghum-based beers have been a part of African culture for centuries. If not sorghum, brew masters employ buckwheat, corn, quinoa, millet and rice.
Brewers of gluten-free beer are often celiacs themselves, like Gonzalez, which adds a credibility factor with their customers. Others, like Russ Klisch, just want to help quench the thirst of the millions who can’t drink regular beer. Klisch is president and founder of Lakefront Brewery, a microbrewery in Milwaukee. About five years ago, he received a phone call from a fellow in Houston with celiac disease, asking if Lakefront could brew up a gluten-free beer. (In the small-world category, turns out the caller’s nephew was Klisch’s roommate in college.)
“At the time, I had no idea what celiac disease even was,” Klisch admits. Shortly thereafter, it came to his attention that the father of his head brew master had celiac disease and longed for a good beer. “Then I attended a craft brewer’s conference in Philadelphia and nearly everyone knew someone who couldn’t tolerate regular beer,” he says. “I thought to myself how awful it would be to have this condition and not be able to enjoy a pint.”
Sensing an untapped market, so to speak, industrious Lakefront Brewery got to work on hashing out award-winning New Grist, the only gluten-free beer among Lakefront’s 18 offerings. Released in November 2005, it was the first maltless, gluten-free beer widely available in America. Klisch worked with the U.S. government to obtain a variance to the definition of beer (at the time defined as a product containing at least 25 percent malted barley) in order to legally make and market a safe beer for celiacs.
“Sales have risen by about 10 percent each year since the beer’s release,” says Klisch, who believes non-celiac drinkers are also fueling sales to the point where yearly production has reached 3,000 barrels. “There’s probably some curiosity among regular beer lovers.”
As of last year, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which guides the labeling of beer, spirits and wine, handed off regulation of gluten-free beer to the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that oversees food and drink labeling laws. This is good news for beer makers and consumers, as beverages can now be labeled gluten free if batches contain gluten in quantities of less than 20 ppm. Brewers of non-malt beers have until the start of 2012 to add ingredient labels to their products that declare the presence of any major food allergens, including wheat. The new labeling regulations should allow more European gluten-free beers to hop the pond and enter the U.S. market, making it that much easier for food-sensitive beer drinkers to imbibe.
In 2006, beer mega-giant Anheuser-Busch introduced its own take on gluten-free brew, Redbridge, which sells nationwide. Looking beyond just those with celiac disease, Anheuser-Busch is marketing the beer, which it boasts has a classic taste, as a refreshing beverage for those choosing a wheat-free or gluten-free diet. Partnering with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness to increase awareness of celiac disease, Redbridge is a significant addition to the market: one of the world’s most familiar beer names turns its attention to gluten-free beer, giving it a credibility boost. By 2007, organizers of the Great American Beer Festival in Denver took notice of this niche market and awarded gluten-free beer its own category. There is even an international gluten-free beer festival held in England.
Gluten-free brewers welcome the competition. “A larger variety of gluten-free beer brands helps validate the market and spread the word, which is great for growth,” says Brian Kovalchuk, CEO of Bard’s Tale Beer Company based in Minneapolis. Founded by two long-time beer aficionados with celiac disease who took action after diagnosis, craft-brewed Bard’s has grown into the second largest gluten-free beer brand in the United States, behind Redbridge, with the goal of reaching all 50 states and each Canadian province by year-end.
“If all the legal drinking-age celiacs were diagnosed and consumed beer at the same rate as the average U.S. beer drinker, the market for gluten-free could be 25 million cases per year,” Kovalchuk notes. “Those who voluntarily avoid gluten would be on top of that.”
Still, gluten-free beer to date only makes up less than 0.1 percent of the beer market, according to the Brewers Association, and has been slow to make its way into bars and restaurants. Yet with an increasing number of restaurants, such as Outback Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s, offering gluten-free selections, gluten-free beer should start appearing on more menus.
A Toast to Taste
The brew masters at Bard’s have developed a process to successfully malt sorghum to give their beer a more traditional flavor and aroma. “We aspired to make a great beer that tastes like normal beer that just happens to be free of gluten,” says Kovalchuk. “Like other gluten-free beer producers, we would prefer that people drink our beer because they like it, not because their diagnosis dictates they have to.”
Admittedly, sorghum-based beers will probably always have a slightly different flavor from normal beer. “It’s difficult to craft traditional American beer taste and body from untraditional grains,” says New Planet’s Pedro Gonzalez.
Some people may find gluten-free beer to be sharper or a little more sour, which is typical of sorghum, and something that a palate needs to grow into, says Carolyn Smagalski, beer editor at BellaOnline, an Internet women’s magazine. But Smagalski, who is one of the expert judges of the gluten-free category at the Great American Beer Festival, says the quality has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years.
“The first year gluten-free beer appeared at the festival, a lot of people rolled their eyes thinking it was a bit of a joke,” she says. “But now there are so many great-tasting brands that many judges can’t believe they’re gluten-free.”
The price of gluten-free beer—up to 50 percent more than a case of Bud—can be off-putting to some. Sorghum is more expensive than barley and wheat because it’s not as widely available in the United States,” says Kovalchuk. Adding to the cost, he says, is the necessity of sanitation to avoid cross-contamination and sending batch samples to the lab for testing.
“Small batches cost more to make than big batches. The beer is shipped to distributors in pallets and cases compared to rail cars for the big brands, thereby increasing costs,” he says.
Hopefully, as more breweries begin to bottle gluten-free options and consumer demand increases, the price point will dip. But for now, being faced with the prospects of life minus a frosty cold one, a few extra bucks should be easy to swallow.
Gluten-Free Chocolate Beer Chili
Tap into the flavor-enhancing potential of beer with this hardy recipe.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 pound lean ground beef (preferably grass-fed) or ground bison
1 carrot, sliced
1 red pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon cumin powder
- Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup gluten-free beer
1 (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, undrained
1 (5½-ounce) can tomato paste
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 (19-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 (19-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook onions until soft and translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Add meat and cook until browned throughout. Add carrot, red pepper and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes. Add chili powder, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper. Cook 2 more minutes.
3. Add beer and simmer for 3 minutes. Add tomatoes plus juices, tomato paste, cocoa powder, kidney beans and black beans.
4. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Each serving contains 391 calories, 11g total fat, 4g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 49mg cholesterol, 935mg sodium, 46g carbohydrate, 15g fiber, 28g protein.
Beer-Brined Chicken with Orange-Scented Quinoa
Brining chicken breast keeps it deliciously moist during cooking, while the beer infuses it with an interesting flavor. You can also use turkey breast with this recipe.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
4 cups water, divided
2 cups gluten-free beer
4 tablespoons kosher salt
1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
- Zest of 1 medium orange
1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil
1. Place chicken in a large container and add 2 cups water and beer to cover. Breasts should be fully submerged, so add more liquid (beer or water), if needed. Add salt, using 1 tablespoon salt per cup of liquid. Cover and place in refrigerator to brine for 1 to 2 hours.
2. In a saucepan, combine quinoa, orange zest and remaining 2 cups water. Bring to boil. Then reduce heat and simmer until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, remove chicken from brining liquid and cook in a skillet along with oil over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes per side, or until no longer pink in the middle. Serve with quinoa.
Each serving contains 143 calories, 4g total fat, 1g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 68mg cholesterol, 79mg sodium, 27g carbohydrate, 3g fiber, 33g protein. (Data does not include brining liquid.)
Gluten-Free Homemade Mustard
MAKES 1 CUP
Enjoy this intensely flavored mustard on burgers, in vinaigrettes and potato salads. If you like your mustard fiery, use brown mustard seeds.
½ cup gluten-free beer (the darker, the better)
½ cup whole mustard seeds
⅓ cup balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
⅛ teaspoon each cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg and allspice
- Pinch brown sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup, optional
1. Combine all ingredients in a jar and secure lid. Let mixture sit at room temperature overnight to soften the seeds and blend the flavors.
2. Transfer mustard to a food processor and process until seeds are coarsely ground and mixture thickens, about 2 minutes. Stop the machine halfway through to scrape down the sides.
Each tablespoon contains 34 calories, 2g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 147mg sodium, 3g carbohydrate, 1g fiber, 1g protein.
Food writer Matthew Kadey, RD, lives in Canada.