The Case for Gluten-Free Beer
I have celiac disease and I want to drink beer at a bar.
In this day and age, with so many tasty gluten-free beers out to market, this shouldn't be a difficult request. But I get why someone might not know exactly what gluten is. I get why a bartender, restaurant manager, or beer distributor might not know the difference between gluten-free beer and gluten-reduced beer. And I get why someone writing a menu might think it's not a big deal to group gluten-free and gluten-reduced beers together, or might not specifically label which is which, or might just not mark that a beer on the menu is gluten-free to being with. (Hint, all of those distinctions are important.)
But . . .
In a world where beer bars offer craft ciders, sours, IPAs with artisan grains, and small-batch this and that tap after tap... why can't I just get a damn beer made without barley?
I've taken this question in Op-Ed form to Pitchfork's October. (Go read it here.) Along with insight from those in the beer industry, gluten-free experts Jules Shepard of Gluten-Free Jules and Michael Savett of Gluten-Free Philly contribute their particular knowledge on the gluten-free beer scene.
Below, I share further details on two integral parts of the October story.
With gluten-reduced beers, barley is still the main grain used in production; an enzyme added brings the gluten count below 20 parts-per-million, which some consider safe for those with celiac. However, the testing methods for these products are not consistent nor confirmed reliable. In the interview below, Jules expands upon why.
Then, the three of us conclude that the best way to get more bars to stock gluten-free beer is first to always ask a bar if they have one—constant requests will encourage purchasing for those with power. But if the bar can't bring a beer to you, bring a beer to the bar.
"I think people have to be a little more discriminating. And what I mean by that is they need to seek out different beers that are available," Michael says. "A lot of the smaller companies distribute online. And while it's expensive to ship bottles, it's definitely a way to try something other than Redbridge or a cider. Order something you like, like a stout or a porter available online, then bring that along with you to restaurants that don't have a liquor license." Below, Michael shares the ten breweries and beers he recommendations out of over fifty on the market today.
Do you have a protocol for going into a bar and asking for a gluten-free beer - a way for asking or educating the bartender or manager?
It depends on my energy levels—do I want to get into it or do I not want to get into it? Because I'm not the kind of person who's just going to let it lie. If we're going to have a conversation about gluten-free beer versus gluten-reduced beers, I'm going to have the full conversation and I'm going to tell you everything you need to know about it.
Most places, if they're going to offer something that they believe is gluten-free, they're going to offer gluten-reduced beer because they just don't understand the difference. And it's unfortunate when you see that they've actually gone to the trouble to say “gluten-free beer” on the menu instead of “gluten reduced-beer.” Whenever I see that, whether I'm in the mood or not, I always pull the bartender or the manager aside and explain to them that there is a big difference and this is incorrect. If you want to list it as a gluten-reduced option for people who are just looking to reduce the amount of gluten in their lives that's fine. But don't mischaracterize it.
Why do you think purchasers are so misinformed as to the difference?
I'm not knocking Omission or the Craft Brew Alliance, but they don't want people to go too deep into what the differences are. I'm sure that they honestly believe that their beer is safe for celiacs, but the testing has not confirmed that. And so they don't want to get too far into the nitty-gritty details of why they really can't say their beer is gluten-free, because that would be undercutting them and their market share. It makes sense.
Mass spectrometry is the most accurate testing for gluten in gluten-reduced beers. How is that muddling the gluten-reduced testing world right now?
The 2017 study that Chicago and GIG (Gluten Intolerance Group) did really solidified the position of experts. It was just a pilot study, but I hope they do more research. Omission had indicated that they did test their beer using mass spectrometry, but they wouldn't release the results. They said that they didn't own the results, or something very odd like that, and so they wouldn't release the result, and mass spectrometry is very expensive so they're not going to use it for every batch. They say that they test every batch and they put the number on the website, but they're never going to do that with mass spectrometry unless it becomes more affordable.
But everyone who has run mass spectrometry—that Australian study and also the GIG study that studied the serology of celiacs and their reactions to beers—have indicated a concern with regard to how much gluten is left in a gluten-reduced beer. And it's really unclear—I guess pun intended—how much gluten is left after the enzymes have done their thing. Because different breweries use different amounts of enzyme. And at the end of the day, you can't use a test that doesn't work and claim a valid result. And that's what all of them are hanging their hat on.
Not everyone has celiac, and not everyone also feels as sick as I do with symptoms instigated by food. How important is the risk of gluten-free over gluten-reduced to your readers? Are these gluten-reduced beers harming or helping truly gluten-free beers move forward into the spotlight? Do people care?
I can't say that I know whether the existence of gluten reduced-beers helps or harms the future of gluten-free beer. I think that there certainly are plenty of people who are gluten-free who don't have a celiac diagnosis. And I've heard people talk about, "It's better than a regular beer."
But what I find is that most people, once you explain it, do not want to have a gluten-reduced beer—they want the gluten-free beer. But a) lot of people don't understand the difference. B) Maybe they don't have the choice, maybe they live in the middle of the country where they don't have access to both gluten-reduced and gluten-free. Or C) They say, "I drink it and I feel fine." You see that not infrequently. And my only answer to that is that 60% of people with celiac disease have no overt symptoms. Just because you feel fine drinking that beer does not mean that beer is truly gluten-free. That does not mean that that beer is not doing damage to you on the inside. It also, by the same token, doesn't mean that it is because we don't know for sure, because there's so much variability between the beers that are made and the amount of enzymes added, and the potential for gluten fragments and gluten whole particles to be remaining. So, the whole thing is pretty cloudy.
That's what I share with my readers when they ask me, “What's your opinion?” I don't think it's worth it. I suppose if you are desperate for a beer—like you just wanted a beer and there was no such thing as gluten-free beer—I can understand why someone might risk their health. But at the end of the day, is beer worth it? "I just want to have one slice of pizza.” “I just want to have a Philly cheese steak." I don't think any of those things are worth my health. But everybody's got their own opinion and that's their choice. That's what living gluten-free is; being completely in control of your health. Because it's all about what you choose to put in your body or not put your body. And you're always going to hear somebody say, "I feel fine when I drink it."
You specialize in food. These little microbreweries are using ingredients millet and quinoa— high-quality grains now—and still we’re not catching onto them as rapidly as gluten-free foods. Why do you think that is?
My guess would be that because most beer that anyone here in the states would have ever tasted is made with barley, so that's the beer taste. And so when someone takes a gluten-free beer for the first time, a lot of the gluten-free beers have this, smacks you right in the face as tasting like something that's not beer. I think people will say, especially people who are true beer lovers, "That doesn't taste like beer." And a lot of the gluten-free food now—certainly the food that I make with my flour— don't taste gluten-free; you have birthday cake and it will taste like birthday cake. I think maybe that's where the biggest difference lies. Up until pretty recently, those gluten-free beers just didn't taste like a real beer. They tasted like a pretty funky substitute.
Since they do taste so good now, what has to happen to get more bars to stock a case of gluten-free beer?
It's definitely incumbent upon us as consumers to make the demand known. I should ask every time I go somewhere just because I'm logging my question, even if I know the answer is no. The more times people ask, the more time it's going to add up to, “OK, we see a demand that we should be meeting.”
Michael Savett's Top Gluten-Free Beer Recommendations
Find more at Gluten-Free Philly.
Find craft breweries from the Pacific Northwest like Moonshrimp, Ghostfish, and Groundbreaker at Bring on the Beer. On the East coast, find Redbridge, Greens, and Glutenberg at Total Wine. Otherwise, check the breweries' websites to see if they ship, or ask your local beer store if they'll order for you!
Alpenglow Beer Buck Wild Pale Ale. From San Jose, California. With notes of toffee and caramel and subtle hops and citrus on the nose, sweet with a fruity bite, golden color, recommended food pairing for salmon.
ALT Brewery. From Madison, Wisconsin. Full line of year-round and seasonal beers in IPA, brown, Scotch, copper ale and more.
Bierly Brewing Felix Pilsner: From Philomath, Oregon. Light in color with minimal head and notes of fig, try it with cheese and trout.
Fiesta Latina Agave Ale: From Jalisco, Mexico and distributed in California. Tastes like crisp, green apples and made from agave!
Ghostfish Peak Buster Double IPA: From Seattle, Washington. With a rich head, decadent mouthfeel and flavors of pine, this is one of Ghostfish's extensive line of fully gluten-free beers.
Glutenberg Whitbier: Thick mouthfeel and true to style, it's got notes of coriander and a crisp finish. Glutenberg Stout: With a frothy head, dark complexion and notes of coffee and chocolate, this is a solid a stout as you'll find. From Montreal, Quebec and distributed in 28 States.
Green's Quest Tripel Ale: From Lochristi, Belguim and distributed nationwide. Crisp with no aftertaste and notes of candied fruit, caramel, and raisins, try it with green vegetables and rich dishes like beef or paella.
Groundbreaker Imperial Darkness Stout: From Portland, Oregon and distributed in several states and online. Smooth, creamy, with hints of licorice, coffee, and chocolate, try it with something spicy.
Holidaily Favorite Blonde Ale. Golden color with light body, mellow hops and malty sweetness, citrus notes match both salmon and bratwurst. Holidaily's Fat Randy's IPA: Hoppy at the start and finish with a sold malt backone, this opens to melon and tropical fruit flavors perfect for balancing cheesy gluten-free pizza. From Golden, Colorado.
Ipswich Ale's Celia Farmhouse Ale: Ipswich, Massachusetts and distributed throughout the northeast. With a big head, light color, and orange and pepper notes leaving a clean aftertaste, this savory beer works for appetizer pairings and vegetable dishes.
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