Rattle the word “gluten” around your tongue. The first discourse occurred in culinary college — drilling into our brains its ideal development in bread baking. Very little was said about intolerance. Perhaps there was a word on celiac. It’s a sensitive topic among old chef friends, fiercely protective of carefully curated menus.
No chefs argue about celiac disease. This is an autoimmune disorder. Ingestion of gluten — a protein present in wheat, barley, and rye — triggers a potentially serious reaction in the sufferer’s small intestine. Not a pretty thought for a beer enthusiast. The condition can be confirmed by blood test.
What has commonly been called gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, are intestinal (or extraintestinal) manifestations that subside in the absence of gluten-bearing fare … which aren’t the result of wheat allergy either … and for which FODMAPs — short chain carbohydrates difficult for digestion — might be partially responsible. Chefs disagree.
The bottom line is that beer options exist. The FDA demands that foodstuffs labelled “gluten-free” test below 20 PPM of gluten. This is the lowest concentration reliably detected. Evidently, if a beer passes the test but the brewery brews with the grains the product cannot be called “gluten-free,” the brewery must resort to calling it “gluten-reduced.” Brewers Clarex is an enzyme marketed to shelf stabilize beer and eliminate chill haze. It also happens to reduce gluten in beer brewed with wheat and barley. There appears to be some overlap between the proteins in that haze and those that trouble the tummy.
As gripping as that all is, I wasn’t itching to try any beer deliberately adjusted for gluten. Someone sent me some. Truth be told, it was tasty enough to have another. That’s my litmus, plain and simple. So I sipped a few others.
Lakefront Brewery’s (Milwaukee) New Grist is put out as a Pilsner, but it’s brewed without barley or wheat. Thus it can be called gluten-free. The first to be labeled so, they claim. Honestly, I wouldn’t pick this up as a stand-in for Pilsner. I’m a big fan of Bell’s Oarsman, the so-called sour mash wheat ale. It’s my go-to in summer and I’d swap this in without much hesitation. Rice syrup and sorghum yield a tart, mildly hopped and lively carbonated beverage, crisp but with an element of sweet apple. I’d hitch it to a big bowl of buttery steamed mussels and toasted bread (I do gluten) and never look back.
Another distinctive one is Burning Brothers Brewing’s (St. Paul) Roasted. It’s a dedicated gluten-free facility. This Strong Ale blended with cold brew coffee is the darkest offering I found. It’s balanced but I’d avoid having it with anything remotely sweet. Finding it might require some effort.
Full disclosure: the beer sent to me was Surly Hop Shifter. It employs Clarex. I have an annoying truism, that it’s harder to make scrambled eggs stand out than a novel preparation, because people have had eggs a hundred million times. I’m not an avid IPA drinker but Surly slipped this one into my comfort zone.