If beer has a soul, I’m pretty sure it’s made of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in barley, wheat, oats and other grains that is the backbone of most craft beers. Gluten is also the bane of people who suffer from celiac disease, as it damages their small intestines, interfering with their ability to digest certain nutrients.
Lately, it’s become more and more fashionable for brewers to offer gluten-free beers for the more than 2 million Americans who suffer from celiac disease. But my big question is: Can you make a good beer without using barley, wheat or oats? And by “beer” I mean a beverage that tastes like a beer, not fermented wallpaper paste, and by “good” I mean one that a regular beer drinker would be happy to consume.
I was skeptical, so I lined up a quartet of gluten-free beers to try. My methodology wasn’t exactly scientific – I bought every one I could find. (If I missed a gluten-free beer you enjoy, please let me know below in the comments.)
To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for any of them, but I tried to save the ones I thought might be best for last, as I didn’t want to set the bar too high out of the gate. It turns out my guesses were pretty good.
First up was Bard’s Tale, a beer brewed with “100 percent malted sorghum.” It looked OK in the glass, with a clear, light amber body and a fingerful of foam on the head, which disappeared quicker than a carb-counter at a bake sale. The nose reminded me of a dry white wine, with a hint of honey and a strange undercurrent I couldn’t quite place — the closest I could figure was corn silk. The taste was similar, starting like a dry white wine followed by a glop of honey and then an unappealing bitterness. Things got worse as the flavor lingered on my palate, reminding me of an herbal Ricola lozenge married to the raunchy vegetable aftertaste of an Olde English 800. Not good. If I had celiac and this was the only gluten-free beer out there, I’d grab a wine spritzer instead. Anything but this.
Things got a little better with the next beer, Lakefront Brewing’s New Grist, brewed with sorghum grains and malted rice. The beer poured extremely pale, looking like watered-down champagne. When I brought it to my nose, it smelled like a mild version of a typical pilsner or lager, with a sweet and floral bouquet. A sip revealed much of the same, with a touch of sweetness up front, followed by a nice mildly hopped finish. The real issue was in the middle – there’s an enormous hole in this beer, right where the barley should be. It’s like when my kids want a story before bed, but I just want them to sleep: “Once upon a time, the end.” No time for the middle! That’s not really a knock on this beer, which would probably make many a celiac happy, but gluten-tolerant people are likely going to look elsewhere.
The next beer in the lineup was Estrella Daura, a gluten-free lager that many consider the world’s finest. And they may be right. Of all the gluten-free beers I tried, this one was clearly the best. It poured pale, like a typical industrial lager, with an impressively thick head that actually left lacing clinging to the sides of the glass. This was a magic trick that only the Daura managed to pull off, and it made me feel that I had a real beer in my glass. There was a nice, mild hop scent on the nose, and, taking a sip, I was rewarded with a malty sweetness the others lacked, and a well-balanced hop finish. All in all, the beginning, middle and end were all like drinking a real beer, both in taste and the sensations in my mouth. The only off-note came in the aftertaste, when an unpleasant bitterness surfaced that seemed more like the product of clever chemistry than the brewer’s touch. But I got used to it after a few sips, and all and all this was the star of the show — a real-tasting beer for folks who can’t have real beer.
The final beer was a wild card: Dogfish Head’s Tweason’ale, a gluten-free offering brewed with sorghum, strawberries and buckwheat honey. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was from Dogfish, so I knew it would be interesting. It certainly looked good in the glass, with a deep amber color plus a pinkish twinge, most likely from the strawberries. The beer had a finger-high head that quickly dissipated, and the nose smelled of strawberry jam. The first sip puckered my palate with an intensely tart strawberry flavor, reminiscent of a very dry wine. After the tartness faded, sweetness remained, and I was reminded of a biscuit coated with strawberry preserves. While I thought it was cool, there’s really nothing “beery” about it, so we’ll call it an outlier here.
If you suffer from celiac disease, live in the New York area, and are looking for a new friend, give me a shout. I bought six-packs or four-packs of all these beers and I need someone to pawn them off on share the leftovers with.
Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits.
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