Are you gluten intolerant? Maybe you know someone who is, or you’ve decided to try cutting your gluten intake in the new year. Thankfully, now that there are so many gluten free beer options, you won’t have to give up beer entirely. Unfortunately many of these GF beers are near-enough to undrinkable that they might put you off GF beers for good!
At Beer of Tomorrow we don’t want you to give up on beer, even if you can’t have the gluten anymore. We’ve tasted nine different gluten free beers and have recommendations for the best alternatives to traditional malt beers for those who are sensitive to gluten!
What Is Gluten Free Beer?
The traditional brewing grains like malted barley and wheat provide the fermentable sugars needed to create beer, but they also contain the gluten protein that is responsible for an auto-immune response in people that are particularly sensitive to the protein.
Brewers who want to make a beer that is safe to consume for gluten intolerant individuals need to either provide an alternative source of fermentable sugars that do not contain gluten or find some way to remove the gluten present in traditionally brewed beers.
Most of the beers we tried use sorghum syrup as a substitute for the gluten-containing barley or wheat, and the result is always lacking in body and mouthfeel. Buckwheat, spelt, rice and corn can be used in brewing gluten free or low-gluten beers (each with their own positives and negatives), but the sorghum syrup is the most common source of gluten free fermentables we’ve found.
Sorghum is a type of grass that’s grown for its grain, much like wheat or barley, but the grain lacks the proteins that affect people who are gluten sensitive or intolerant. It has traditionally been used to brew beer in Africa, and the resulting beverage is a sweet and tart brew that is known by many names across Africa.
While most modern breweries have turned to the sorghum syrup for the base of their GF brews, a few breweries use different techniques to remove the gluten protein from conventionally brewed beers. Both the previously tested Estalla beer and the new line of GF beers from Widmer Brewing, called Omission, use a proprietary enzymatic process to reduce the level of gluten in their beers.
It should be noted however that this process only removes enough of the gluten present to be able to legally call the beer “gluten free,” and even at below the prescribed 20 parts-per-million some particularly sensitive individuals may still have a reaction.
Last month we took a look at five very different takes on gluten free brews, and while a couple were passable alternatives to a “full gluten” beer in a pinch, none were particularly great. So we picked another four commonly available GF beers to put to a Beer of Tomorrow tasting panel.
The results among the tasters during our first GF beer tasting were very mixed. It seemed that each beer had it’s proponent even if none of them were all that great. I personally liked the St Peter’s Sorghum Beer the best as it had an assertive piney bitterness that reminded me of a spruce beer.
The Estalla Daura was very similar to an common adjunct lager, and this beer would be a good alternative for a gluten intolerant BMC drinker. I loathed the overly sweet Brunehaut Amber, but the beer did get good marks from some other tasters who liked the very light body.
Green’s Amber Ale was similar to the Brunehaut, though the Green’s had a very pronounced cidery flavor and the “slick” mouthfeel common to many GF beers. The Dogfish Head Tweason’ale is pretty tasty, though it is only remotely beer-like. More like a strawberry cider than the blonde ale it attempts to mimic.
Four More GF Beers Tested
The results of the second tasting were nearly as mixed as the first, though there were a couple of stand-outs.
Widmer Bros Brewing – Omission Lager
This pale-lager style beer was the most like a traditional malt beer. It had a nice aroma that reminded me of a mild Pilsner, and the initial flavor backed this impression up. I wished it was a little hoppier and crisper, but the mouthfeel was nearly spot-on. The 4.6%ABV beer was quite drinkable, and I was impressed but just how close it came to a “real” mild pils.
This beer uses the above-mentioned proprietary method of removing the gluten from traditionally brewed beer, and while the process does provide a remarkably authentic beer flavor and mouthfeel, there could be enough residual gluten in the brew to cause problems if you are particularly sensitive.
Bard’s – Sorghum Malt Beer
This pale brew was one of the first commercially available GF beers, and it was ranked as the #2 beer of the flight by the whole panel. While the initial aroma, which was has a strong solvent character, was off-putting at first the light and refreshing taste one the panel over.
The beer exhibited some of the “strange” and “slipper” mouthfeel that plagues sorghum brews, but the mild fruity-yeast flavors more than made up for the deficiencies in the body of the beer.
Lakefront – New Grist
I had high-hopes for this GF brew from the Wisconsin Brewery, but it fell short for me and I ranked it last (as did two other tasters.) One panel-member picked it as their top choice though citing a depth and complexity of flavor as it’s most appealing qualities. I found it to be too-mild and too thin, even though it was the highest in alcohol of the bunch (5.75%ABV).
They call it a “pilsner style beer” but none of the tasters found much that was pils-like about the lager.
New Planet – Off Grid Pale Ale
New Planet has just gone through a re-branding, and they produce several styles of gluten free brews. We sampled the Pale Ale, and it was ranked near the bottom of the list for the whole panel. The ale suffered from being too sweet and exhibiting a long, astringent finish that really put me off the beer. The beer was bitter, but it didn’t taste like true hop bitterness; it had a medicinal or chemical edge that was quite unpleasant.
I won’t write-off New Planet as a whole until I’ve sampled a few of their other offerings, but this initial impression was not a good one.
Omission Lager & Bard’s Golden Beer
As with everything else in the beer-world it all comes down to personal preference, and there is no substitution for trying as much as you can and making your own decisions. That said, you could do much worse than starting your explorations based on the work we’ve done for you.
For me, the two best of the nine beers that we tasted were the Omission Lager and the Bard’s Golden Beer. I would be willing to bet that the Omission beer would do quite well in a blind-tasting with other mild craft pilsners, and the technology that Widmer uses to remove nearly all of the proteins that effect gluten-sensitive people is very impressive. This is a good option to replace an easy-drinking lager, but it might might leave a craft beer fan with a more adventurous palate wanting. (I’m quite curious to try the Pale Ale offering from the Omission label.)
The offering from Bard’s was another excellent option that was more flavorful than the Omission, and it would probably do better with drinkers who prefer ales to lagers.
It is important to note that the tasting panel varied widely in their opinions on the majority of the beers tasted. While there were some agreements, the tasters disagreed on many of the samples. There is no agreed on “gluten free beer style” or a standard flavor profile for these beers, and many breweries are still trying to replicate traditional styles when they make a GF brew. The gluten free beers that broke the mold of traditional beer styles fared better with the tasters; the Tweason’ale and St Peter’s Gluten Free Beer are two options that do not attempt to taste just like traditional malt beers, and they are more palatable for it.
As the market for gluten free and low-gluten brews grows we’ll see more breweries bringing these products to market, and there are several already on the shelves that we didn’t get the chance to sample.
Thanks to the brave tasters who helped out with the sampling of all of these beers! I owe you guys something with extra gluten in it now!
Have you discovered a gluten free beer that you enjoy? We want to hear about it in the comments!