Whether you avoid gluten for allergy, general health, or even trend reasons, one of the biggest bummers is that regular beer becomes totally off-limits. Many cereal grains—including the delicious beer-making ones like barley, rye, oats, and wheat—are naturally full of the stuff, and most beer has the one-two gluten punch of also containing malt, which is a processed type of grain (typically barley) that is germinated and dried for use during the brewing or spirit-distilling process.
If you don’t know what gluten is yet you probably don’t need to know, but just in case: It’s a kind of protein composite that occurs in plants that can be incredibly difficult for gluten-allergic or gluten-intolerant people to digest (think of it as the grain equivalent of lactose intolerance), and sensitivity to it comes with a host of unpleasant reactions, gastrointestinal symptoms, and abject misery.
So, beer lovers who are also gluten haters, what to do with you?
Thankfully, many breweries have found workarounds for the classic, but distress-creating beer ingredients by making products that are either strictly gluten-free or contain low gluten for the less-tolerant. Here’s how to tell what you’re getting, and recommendations for a few of the tastiest options available.
Unfortunately, “gluten-free” does not yet have a really hard and fast strict standard in the United States. As a matter of fact, gluten isn’t required to be listed on food or drink labels unless it is an additional ingredient, rather than simply a by-product of, say, a wheat or barley ingredient. Typically, “gluten-free” labels simply mean that the food or drink has less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, which is still enough to wreak havoc on the afflicted. Similarly, many so-called “gluten-free” products are produced in facilities that come in regular contact with gluten, which can add trace contaminants that might cause a Celiac-affected person to suffer.
When a beer is brewed using a grain with a lower natural gluten content, such as rye, spelt, or oats, it is sometimes labeled as “gluten-free,” but perhaps “low-gluten” is more accurate: These grains can still carry trace amounts of the offending proteins, and Celiacs and those who are allergic may well still be affected by them. These are, however, relatively safe compromise options for anyone who is simply looking to reduce the amount of gluten they consume for health or wellness reasons that are not disease- or allergy-related.
Other Gluten-Free Alcohol
Just because you’re avoiding gluten doesn’t mean you need to lay off the booze. Wine and champagne are naturally gluten-free, and many Celiac sufferers turn to ciders for an easy drinking beer-like experience with flavor nuances somewhat akin to wine. Tread carefully with spirits, though. Some are brewed from grains that do contain some gluten (rye whiskey, for instance), and some flavored liquors have sneaky gluten as well. Rum, gin, and vodka tend to be safe bets. Well, safe for one or two drinks—then you’re on your own, gluten or not.
Best Gluten-Free Beer Options
As the name implies, Omission is a Portland, Oregon–based brewery dedicated to crafting gluten-free deliciousness whether you’re tailgating or in a tuxedo. The company’s IPA has a classic piney, lemony twang that speaks to its Pacific Northwest origins.
A rice-sorghum brew with a nuanced herbal/floral hoppiness that nicely balances the sometimes too-sweet grains, this is a lovely and crisp option from British Columbia, Canada.
Take this beer with a grain of salt, perhaps, but this Colorado brewery’s GF option is made with an enzyme that breaks down gluten during the brewing process, despite being made with gluten-full barley and malt. Snappy grapefruit-like acidity up front and herbal/bitter hoppy notes make a nice complex sip.
The first beer that received the U.S. government’s stamp of gluten-free approval, New Grist is a blend of sorghum and rice with hops and yeast, an easy-drinking football-Sunday kind of session beer that’s both light and refreshing.
—Head photo: Pixabay.