What would you do if you could not drink beer?
I’m not talking about finding yourself in a dry county on a Sunday afternoon or in the “family section” at a minor league baseball park. I mean, what if having a beer would cause you to have an almost immediate negative physical reaction?
My son-in-law, Mike Wirth, has celiac disease. Basically, it means he cannot enjoy anything made with grains. No pasta. No bread. And, sadly, no beer. His body does not tolerate gluten, a protein found in grains. Exposure to wheat, rye, barley and triticale in food and beverages causes a severe allergic reaction in people with the disease. Estimates are that 3 million people in the United States have celiac disease, even though more than 90 percent have not been correctly diagnosed.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, exposure to gluten creates an immune-mediated toxic reaction that causes damage to the small intestine and does not allow food to be properly absorbed. The good news is that some food manufacturers and brewers see people who cannot tolerate gluten as an underserved market. Where there is an opportunity to make money, corporate America will usually step up.
While gluten-free beers are not quite mainstream when it comes to availability, a major step forward occurred in 2006, when Anheuser-Busch launched Red Bridge. The next year, gluten-free beers showed up as a category at the Great American Beer Festival. At the 2008 GABF, 10 beers were entered in the Gluten Free category. Red Bridge won the gold, New Grist from Lakefront Brewery took the silver and Chinquapin Butte Golden from Deschutes Brewery took the bronze.
Most gluten-free beer is brewed using sorghum, a cereal grass traditionally used for brewing in many African countries. Sorghum beers tend to have a slightly sweet taste. If your taste in beer favors doppelbocks, gluten free beers are worth a try. If you lean towards imperial IPAs, the gluten-free beers we tasted will be too far towards the sweet side. During the Great Depression, sorghum syrup was actually substituted for more expensive maple syrup.
According to Russ Klisch, president of Lakefront Brewing in Milwaukee, his company started brewing New Grist in 2005 partly because his head brewer’s father suffered from celiac disease. Klisch was interested in brewing extreme beers using different ingredients, so New Grist was born using sorghum and rice extract.
Brewing a gluten-free beer is not without its challenges. “Different proteins coagulate differently. Sorghum does not behave like malt in the brewing process,” Klisch says. But with the challenges come opportunities. New Grist has attracted the attention of distributors looking for gluten-free beers and has helped Lakefront expand its reach.
So, do gluten-free beers give celiac sufferers a real beer experience? Well, on one hand, not quite. On the other hand, who is to say? Do wheat beers give barley beer fans a “real beer” experience? Switch the grain bill and any homebrewer will tell you that you are going to taste a difference. Remove the offending grains altogether and the brewer needs to find balance between sweetness and bitterness.
The fact is that gluten-free beers are real in beers in almost every aspect except for the fact they do not contain grain. While they won’t pass the Reinheitsgebot, they do pass muster with celiac sufferers in need of a cold one.
New Nutraceutical Beers
Depending on where you live in the United States, you may be able to find brands such as Bard’s Tale Golden Dragon Lager, Ramapo Valley Honey Lager and Green’s Gluten Free Beer, which is imported from England comes in seven different varieties, including an amber ale, lager and tripel blonde ale. Milwaukee’s Sprecher Brewery has made two gluten-free beers in the past, Mbege Ale (made with banana juice) and Shakparo Ale (made with sorghum and millet), but during a recent visit to the brewery we were told they had stopped making the brands, at least for the time being, because of slow sales.
While they do not have a domestic entry, down the road SABMiller may be on the forefront of brewing gluten-free beers because of the company’s roots in South Africa. Eagle Beer made with sorghum is popular in Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The company is testing brews made with cassava, a root vegetable, as a way to cut production costs and also appeal to local flavors.
Gluten-free beer addresses a specific health dilemma for celiac victims. Someday, special beers may be brewed to help the rest of us address potential health issues. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found moderate consumption of beer helped to boost levels of heart healthy Omega-3. A 2008 University of California-Davis study indicates that men or women who have a glass of beer a day can cut their risk of heart attack and stroke by up to 40 percent. The researchers say a glass of beer raises HDL, which is the good type of cholesterol, while reducing the risk of blood clots forming in a heart artery. A study at Spain’s University of Alcala found the silicon content in beer may help reduce the amount of aluminum absorbed in the blood stream. Aluminum, a neurotoxin, absorbed in the digestive system is a possible factor in the development of Alzheimer’s.
But will brewers start to make and market health beers or nutraceutical ales? We may not be that far away. Researchers at Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University in Yangling, China, have developed genetically engineered grapes that they say deliver six times the amount of resveratrol found in regular grapes. Resveratrol is a compound in red wine that researchers believe helps decrease heart disease rates and may have other health benefits. In late 2007, a study at Oregon State University found a substance in hops can help fight several types of common cancers. The researchers discovered that xanthohumol, which is found naturally in hops, helps detoxify carcinogens and can kill breast, colon, prostate and ovarian cancers.
The problem is that with standard hops an individual would have to consume 60 beers a day to get the maximum cancer fighting benefits of xanthohumol. Researchers at the brewing technology section of the Technical University of Munich in Germany are said to be working on ways of concentrating the amount of xanthohumol in beer.
So someday in the not too distant future your doctor just might prescribe Your Next Beer.
Rick Lyke is a freelance drinks journalist based in Charlotte, NC. He started his beer writing career in 1980 and founded the Pints for Prostates campaign in 2008 after successful treatment of the disease.