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Gluten Free Beer – that “alcoholic beverage”

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Written By: Martha Hunter

I’ve logged enough hours – and way too many dollars – at bakeries to conclude that I don’t have celiac disease. But what if I decided to drop the cupcakes and live a gluten-free lifestyle? Would I have to turn my beer into wine? Well, no – with some fine print, of course.

Beer, to the degree that the people who consume it can agree (and they rarely agree on anything) is any beverage made from malted cereal grains, water and hops that’s been fermented by yeast. Health Canada has to be difficult though – they consider anything labelled “beer” to have at least some barley or wheat in it. Which is why you’ll see some beverages in Canada sold in beer-like packaging, in the store next to the beer, without actually being called the b-word. It lets celiacs know they can drink without fear… as long as they drink responsibly.

Now, if you’re wondering what’s the point of bothering to make something that tastes like beer if you’re not going to call it beer, calm down. First of all, fermented drinks from gluten-free grains have a pretty long history. Ancient peoples didn’t have a commercialized network of efficiently distributed malted grain to brew from. Instead, they had to brew from whatever they could hack out of the earth with their tools. Or chew up with their teeth – a traditional Peruvian beer called chicha is brewed from chewed and spat out corn. China’s first beers were made with rice, and sake uses more of a brewing process in its production anyway. So there is historical precedent.

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It also seems unfair to expect gluten-free folks to be happy with wine, or maybe hard liquors like tequila. If everyone else is drinking beer, why should they have to sip delicately from a wine glass in envy? Fortunately for these folks, crafty brewers have come up withsome reasonable alternatives. I wouldn’t say they are interchangeable alternatives though. Barley has a particular taste, and it’s very efficient at producing sugars during the malting process. Sugar is what yeast needs to make alcohol. And if you’re using something besides barley as your base, getting enough fuel for this glorious transformation will be a problem. That’s one of the reasons some of those ancient beer preparations died out. So there usually needs to be an added source, like sorghum syrup. Some GF beer even throw demerara sugar, aka the only kind of sugar available at hippie cafes, into their brews. Overall, you can expect a sweeter taste if you’re going gluten-free.

Other than that, taste will vary with ingredients, just like your typical beer. Even surveying what’s out there would be tough. With the market for GF products growing, (have you checked out a grocery store lately?) new options appear regularly to fill the void. Lake Front Brewery’s New Grist, which uses sorghum and rice, seems to have the most widespread reach. Quebec residents can try any of the La Messegère, made from assorted combos of rice, buckwheat and millet. Here in Ontario, there’s Snowman Brewing (appearing at special events) and the Gluten Free from Nickel Brook (appearing at many LCBOs.) I used that “alcoholic beverage” – quoting the can – to fuel this post. Since it was made from pear juice, sorghum syrup and sugar, I was expecting an overwhelmingly sweet drink. But it wasn’t. Hops had ended up with all those other ingredients, and there was a very familiar bitterness to this beer. It almost made me forget I was ruining it all by eating a croissant at the same time.