Some studies suggest that as many as one in seven people may have a sensitivity to gluten. Hannah Murphey considers herself to be one of them. When chronic digestive problems sent Murphey, 30, a teacher from San Carlos, California to a doctor, she tested negative for celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder affecting about 1 percent of the population. She began eliminating and reintroducing common inflammatory foods to her diet. It didn’t take long for her to identify gluten as the trigger for her bloating, fatigue, heartburn, joint pain and “general feelings of crappiness,” according to Murphey. At that point she restricted drinking to wine and cider—naturally gluten-free beverages that have long provided alternatives to beer.
Gluten is an umbrella term for protein composites that occur naturally in wheat, barley and rye. Providing the elasticity in bread dough (gluten is Latin for “glue”), it is present in all-grain beer to varying degrees, measured in parts per million. Traditional hefeweizen is highest in gluten—wheat proteins impart the cloudy appearance—while commercial lagers brewed partly with gluten-free ingredients like rice are lower.
Gluten, and its potential for causing gastrointestinal distress, has become a polarizing topic in the food industry. Like any controversial issue, an ocean of misinformation surrounds gluten, and its effects are under-researched.
The current conversation began in 2011 with Peter Gibson, professor and director of gastroenterology at Monash University in Australia. Gibson’s research concluded that gastrointestinal symptoms of nonceliac patients do exist. The study pointed to gluten as the culprit for the subjects’ irritable bowel syndrome. However, researchers urged restraint when interpreting results. In 2013, Gibson published another study concluding that it was not gluten but FODMAPS, short-chain carbohydrates including fructose and lactose, that were responsible for subjects’ discomfort. By then, the original study had churned through multiple media cycles, many of them misinterpreting Gibson’s conclusions—precisely what he had warned against. Nonetheless, the gluten-free food industry grew 63 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to Mintel, a market research firm. In 2014, sales of gluten-free foods were expected to reach $8.8 billion, and projected growth is expected to increase 61 percent by 2017. A 2013 study by the NPD Group, a market research company, found one in three adults looking to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets. A trip to the snack aisle reflects these numbers with a growing number of savory and sweet gluten-free foods. Visit the beer section, however, and the options are still limited at best.
Seeking Beer Without Gluten
Consumers might assume a progressive metropolis like the San Francisco Bay Area would offer dietary alternatives as diverse as the population that seeks them. In reality, what you are likely to see are six-packs of Lakefront Brewery’s New Grist Pilsner, Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge, Omission beer (in lager, pale ale and IPA) and Stone Brewing Co.’s Delicious IPA.
These beers are commonplace for those looking to cut gluten, but they fall into two categories. The first two examples, New Grist and Redbridge, are certified gluten-free beers made from naturally gluten-free ingredients like sorghum and rice. The other beers, Omission and Stone Delicious IPA, are made with barley and are “crafted to reduce gluten”—a permissible label according to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Ruling 2014-2. Although the beers meet the international gluten-free standard of containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten, they do not meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards, which require that because they are made from ingredients containing gluten (barley), therefore they must be labeled “gluten-reduced” instead of “gluten-free.” To reduce the gluten in beer, brewers use a product called Brewers Clarex or Clarity Ferm. The enzyme has been used by large commercial breweries for over a decade to reduce chill haze in beer. More recently, Dutch-based DSM Food Specialties, the company that manufactures the enzyme, began marketing its product as a tool for brewers to reduce the gluten content in their beer. DSM’s materials frequently note that the growth in the beer industry means brewers are looking to diversify their products and access new markets, and that brewing a gluten-reduced beer is a way for them to do so. Applying this marketing strategy allows DSM to sell more of its specialized product, either directly or through intermediaries like San Diego’s White Labs.
Food engineers derive the gluten-reducing enzyme from Aspergillus niger, a species of black mold that you’ve likely seen growing between the layers of an onion. The endoprotease enzyme acts by breaking down polypeptides in the amino acid proline. Adding Brewers Clarex during fermentation has the effect of reducing gluten levels to less than 20 ppm.
Not Quite Gluten-Free
Application of the enzyme for gluten-reduced beer is on the rise. In January 2015, Stone Brewing Co. released its first gluten-reduced beer, Stone Delicious IPA. Brewmaster Mitch Steele describes the beer’s genesis: “Up until [Summer of 2014] we had two separate tracks going for what this beer became. Greg [co-founder Greg Koch] wanted Stone Brewing Co. to brew and release a great IPA, a beer called Stone Delicious IPA. At the same time we were considering a gluten-reduced beer.. We were testing prototypes and using White Lab’s Clarity Ferm to break down the gluten-containing proteins in the beer during fermentation. Then sometime last fall the two projects converted to one.”
The success of Stone Delicious IPA stemmed from these two marketable features. Gluten in the beer is reduced, broadening appeal to new consumers who are specifically seeking out these beers. Stone also incorporated a new hop variety called Lemondrop, making the beer attractive to its existing audience , which expects a high level of hop bravado.
Brewers have to be meticulous when introducing a new element, like the Brewers Clarex, to their beer. Stone’s reputation in the brewing industry would suffer if there were flavor defects. “The one thing that came away from that research was that this enzyme does not affect the beer flavor,” Steele says. Steele, whose father-in-law is a diagnosed celiac, believes there will be other gluten-reduced selections from regional breweries. “The hardest part about making a gluten-reduced beer is that you make sure the beer is isolated. We have protocol that everything is clean, and we test it all along the way. Adding the enzyme and waiting it out is easy.” Breweries must send samples of their gluten-reduced beers for testing by third parties like White Labs. This step ensures the gluten content is under the required limit, and the results are generally posted by batch on the brewery’s website.
White Labs started carrying DSM products in 2011. It ran trials, decided how it would test gluten content, and verified the science before offering the product. Kara Taylor is an analytical laboratory specialist at the San Diego-based company. She notes the increased interest in Brewers Clarex sold as Clarity Ferm by White Labs: “We find that the product is most popular in breweries in communities where gluten-free lifestyles are popular.” Taylor adds, “It’s been also really popular for homebrewers. Now their gluten-intolerant friends can also try their homebrew instead of only making ciders.”
Different people with celiac disease have different opinions on drinking gluten-reduced beer. Some worry there is damage even without symptoms. Taylor advises, “What I always warn people is that it’s at your own risk. Some breweries are testing every batch for gluten content to be under 20 ppm, such as Widmer and Stone Brewing Co., but other breweries are not as rigorous with their lab testing.”
There are other concerns. “If it’s on draft, it could be touching lines and kegs that previously had a product containing gluten. My personal advice is to start slow and to not drink an entire six-pack your first time. Additionally, a celiac may react differently from different products from different breweries.”
It’s not just gluten-reduced beers on the rise. Gluten-free beers that are made without fermentables that contain gluten are increasingly in demand. These malts come from sources like Grouse Malting Co., in Wellington, Colorado. Maltster Twila Henley oversees her operation of 100 percent gluten-free malt. “We sell certified gluten-free malt to both designated gluten-free breweries as well as traditional breweries who have added a gluten-free option to their lineup,” Henley says. “The gluten-free malt market is most certainly growing.” In January 2015, Coors released Peak, its gluten-free beer, made with brown rice and brown rice malt, in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle.
Skeptics of gluten-free and gluten-reduced products think they will go the way of other fad diets—the market has been oscillating between fat-free, dairy-free, low-cholesterol, low-carb and extra-fiber products. But gluten sensitivity research is increasing. Results from a recent clinical trial, published in the medical journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, concluded that for people with nonceliac gluten sensitivity, “the severity of overall symptoms increased significantly during one week of intake of small amounts of gluten, compared with placebo.”
Back in California, Murphey doesn’t let the skeptics bother her anymore. “I know I feel better without gluten, and cutting it out has improved my quality of life,” she says. Even long-term, she is confident with her choices. “I’m not compromising my health because I don’t eat the processed junk that’s gluten-free. I eat healthful, whole foods. Beyond that, I just don’t care what anybody thinks.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story identified Omission IPA as made by Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. While the beer is brewed at the Widmer Brothers facility in Portland, Oregon, and the Redhook Brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Omission is a stand-alone brand under the Craft Brew Alliance. We regret the error.
The following beers were reviewed by John Holl.
Glutenberg India Pale AleABV: 6%
Tasting Notes: For devoted IPA fans, this will be a bit of a downer, as the hop content and body fall more toward the pale ale category. That said, for a pale ale this is quite nice. It pours straw yellow with a pronounced chill haze. Notes of lime zest, grapefruit pith and burnt orange appear. This hits all the right flavors, but finishes slightly off with a zap of citric acid that lingers too long.
Brunehaut TripleABV: 8%
Tasting Notes: Honeycomb, grape must, coriander and wild flowers are alive in the aroma but completely lost in the taste. With a slick body, robust carbonation and classic golden appearance (complete with a thick white head), it’s more confusing than anything else. Overall, this lacks the robustness and complexity associated with tripels, but works in a pinch for a gluten-free drinker looking for a fix.
Omission IPAABV: 6.7%
Tasting Notes: This lacks the overall bitter oomph of a full-fledged IPA (especially coming out of Portland). It’s more in the pale ale arena, but with bright, resiny hop character and some slight tropical fruit. Clear golden in color with a moderate white head, it’s as much fun to look at as it is to drink. With many IPAs to choose from, this is still a solid choice even if you don’t have a gluten intolerance.
Ground Breaker Coffee PaleABV: 5.5%
Tasting Notes: Yellow to almost golden in color, but bursting with aromas of a fresh-brewed pot of coffee. A sticky sweetness, like artificial creamer, comes on after the first sip, along with a nut-skinlike tannic dryness. Crème brûlée appears after several swallows. The coffee dominates overall, but there is a citrus hop characteristic, like a lemon peel served with espresso.
Erika Bolden is a freelance writer based in Southern California.