Gluten-Free Doesn’t Mean Craft Beer-Free

By John Holl

Shortly after being diagnosed with celiac disease, a few regular customers of the Old Hat Brewery & Grill approached Brewer and Owner Tommy Fuller to ask for a favor. Having celiac meant they could no longer consume gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. As such, the beers they once enjoyed at Fuller’s Lawton, MI, brewery were now off limits. The favor they were asking was for Fuller to brew up a gluten-free beer.

Fuller said he spent a few weeks thinking about and developing a recipe. Like others experimenting with gluten-free brewing, he settled on using sorghum in his recipe, but decided to also add honey to help balance the tart flavor the alternative grain brought to the brew. The result was Bees Knees Honey Ale, which has a slightly sweet, dry honey taste and a mellow hop finish.

Of the 300 barrels of beer he produces annually, Fuller says he brews about 48 barrels of Bees Knees. Its success has paved the way for other gluten-free items on the grill’s menu—even allocating a separate deep fryer for non-gluten items.

While there are larger brewing companies that are producing and using their extensive distribution networks to sell their own gluten-free beer, many of America’s small craft breweries are offering their own take on the style, to the great pleasure of their local customers.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease targets the lower intestine. When a person with the inherited disease consumes gluten, their immune system attacks the villi—protrusions that absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. Without healthy villi, the body cannot get the nutrients it needs, eventually causing malnutrition.

A recent study estimated that nearly 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease, though many have not yet been properly diagnosed. There is no cure, but it can be effectively managed by maintaining an appropriate diet.

While those with celiac disease have no other option than to avoid gluten, there are those who don’t have the disease who are giving up the protein, as they believe it lends itself to a healthier lifestyle. This trend can also be seen in professional athletes who have given up gluten as they believe it improves their performance and recovery time. There is also a segment of the population who give up gluten to support and encourage spouses and family members with celiac disease. However, it is important to consult with a doctor before making that dietary change.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

When Pedro Gonzalez was diagnosed with celiac disease, he was able to regain a healthy lifestyle after going gluten-free; but, he was missing many foods that he used to enjoy, like pizza and beer. A few years ago, while on a hike with a brewer friend, they began discussing possibilities of gluten-free brewing, and he offered to try his hand at a few recipes.

After some trial and error, they settled on a recipe that would become Tread Lightly Ale, the flagship beer of the brewery they would eventually found together, New Planet Brewing Company in Boulder, CO. The ale is a balanced beer brewed with sorghum plus corn extract and orange peel.

Soon after the release of Tread Lightly, Gonzalez released 3R Raspberry Ale, which is similar to Tread Lightly, but with natural raspberry puree added. That beer placed third in the gluten-free category at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival.

The brewery also has a Pale Ale in their line-up, and Gonzalez says he is exploring other styles.

“I want to have Cream Ale, Pilsner, IPA, Stout, Porter, and every kind we can,” he said. “I have a passion for giving gluten-free people, like me, options.”

The Latest in Gluten-Free Brewing

As diagnosis of gluten intolerances are becoming more common, innovations in brewing gluten-free beer can be seen across the country. Bard’s Tale Beer Company, in Minneapolis, MN, began producing a gluten-free beer about five years ago,

“We make a great craft beer that also happens to be gluten-free,” said Bard’s Tale CEO, Brian Kovalchuk.” One thing that separates Bard’s Tale is that they put the sorghum through the malting process, just like barley, “meaning the beer tastes like beer,” said Kovalchuk.

The beer is currently available in 43 states, and Kovalchuk said it has been well received by the gluten-free community, and even regular beer drinkers have been willing to give it a try and even drink it on a regular basis.

“It’s a craft beer that everyone can enjoy,” he said.

Some U.S. Craft Breweries That Offer Gluten-Free Beers

The Alchemist Pub and Brewery | Waterbury, VT
Deschutes Brewery | Bend, OR
New Planet Beer Company | Boulder, CO
Bard’s Tale Beer Company | Minneapolis, MN
Old Hat Brewery and Grill | Lawton, MI
Sprecher Brewing Company | Milwaukee, WI

Do you know of other breweries with gluten-free options? Please share them below!

As a journalist focusing on craft beer and the culture of drinking, John Holl writes for a variety of publications. He is the author of the forth coming American Craft Beer Cookbook and is the host of The Beer Briefing on iHeartRadio.

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