I Tried It: Gluten-Free & Gluten-Reduced Beer

I’ve never tried gluten-free or gluten-reduced beers because they’re just not on my radar. Gluten seems to be something I can tolerate, given that I consume large quantities of beer with no gastrointestinal distress that can’t be attributed to the occasional hangover or weird beer ingredient. There’s no denying that plenty of people follow a gluten-reduced or –free diet, Celiac or otherwise, and it seems like craft beer is starting to take notice and producing gluten-free or gluten-reduced beers. Now there is also gluten-free barley that will change the game for gluten-free beers.

There is a currently a gluten-free beer section at one of my local beer stores that consists of about two shelves of products. I was actually surprised there were so many varieties of gluten-conscious beers from which to choose. I ended up choosing Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge, which is made from sorghum and gluten-free; Green’s Endeavor Dubbel Dark Ale, which is also made from sorghum and gluten-free; Omission’s Lager and Pale Ale, which are gluten-reduced; and New Belgium’s Glutiny Pale Ale and Golden Ale, which are gluten-reduced.

Before we go farther, however, it’s probably worth our time to get out our junior scientist lab coats for a brief explanation on the difference between gluten-free and gluten-reduced. Barley is one of the main ingredients in beer, along with yeast, water, and hops. Gluten (Latin for “glue”) is naturally present in barley, rye, and wheat. For a beer to be truly gluten free, it must be brewed with something other than wheat, barley, or rye. While that seems somewhat constrictive, there are several grains, grasses, and cereals that can be used in place of wheat, barley, or rye, such as the aforementioned sorghum as well as oats, millet, rice, buckwheat, and maize. When a beer is labeled as gluten-reduced or “crafted to reduce gluten,” it means that the beer was brewed with barley but was then treated with an enzyme that hydrolyzes the gluten protein. The result is a beer that contains a drastically reduced amount of gluten but is not completely gluten-free, which means people with gluten sensitivities may still experience issues from drinking gluten-reduced beers.

I asked one of my friends who was diagnosed with Celiac disease whether she ever drank gluten-free or –reduced beers. She replied that she has tried some and finds that they aren’t too bad but that she prefers wine or vodka. She also added that she can’t do the gluten-reduced beers and wouldn’t recommend them for people with Celiac. Not recommending gluten-reduced beer was backed up by some of the articles I read about gluten-reduced beer, namely that there is still a cumulative factor with gluten-reduced beer, meaning that the first beer may not cause issues but drinking more than one may have the cumulative effect of upsetting your system.

Want a quick way to see if a beer is gluten-free or gluten-reduced? Check for nutrition facts on the label, although this will only be helpful until big beer companies start adding nutrition labels on their beer. Because gluten-free beer isn’t brewed with barley, it’s considered a food product and therefore falls under the FDA, which requires nutrition labels on products, and not the TTB, which does not. Therefore, (for now) if you see a nutrition label on a beer in the gluten-conscious section, it’s more likely than not a truly gluten-free beer. In my experience, though, it’s pretty easy to spot the “crafted to reduce gluten” language on the beer label.

Now that we’ve been through all that, you’re probably wondering how they actually tasted. The answer: not bad at all! After trying all six beers, I ranked them as follows:

1.      New Belgium Glutiny Pale Ale – By far the best, with a nice citrus hoppy aroma and a fresh pale ale flavor. Tom tried it as well and said he would drink it all the time. I’m not sure what I was expecting from a gluten-reduced beer, but I didn’t notice a discernible flavor difference from a regular, gluten-full pale ale.

2.      Omission Lager – This lager was really enjoyable and, like the Glutiny Pale Ale, I couldn’t taste a difference in flavor between this gluten-reduced lager and a normal lager. It was crisp and clean.

3.      New Belgium Glutiny Golden Ale – The aroma reminded me of a cream ale, so there may be some corn in the grain bill. There was a light hop aroma and flavor.

4.      Anheuser-Busch Redbridge – The aroma for this sorghum beer reminded me of Diet Pepsi. I’m not sure what sorghum is supposed to smell and taste like, but this beer had a sweet, soda-like flavor. Not bad, but it didn’t taste like what I expect “beer” to taste like; still, I would try it again.

5.      Green’s Endeavor Dubbel Dark Ale – Endeavor is also a sorghum beer, so I got the same soda-like aroma and flavor, which I’m guessing is the sorghum flavor. There was also a stonefruit aroma and flavor that leaned toward cherries. It was a little thinner-bodied than I would expect from a barley-based Dubbel. I would be interested in doing a side-by-side with this Dubbel and a more traditional Belgian Dubbel.

6.      Omission Pale Ale – Out of all the beers I tried, this one was the one that tasted most like a beer that was missing something and slightly too different to be enjoyable. I found it to be a little unbalanced and have a too-bitter finish. It reminded me of when someone makes cookies with Splenda and margarine instead of real sugar and butter – you get what they’re going for, but it doesn’t taste quite right.

Overall, my gluten-free and gluten-reduced experience was a positive one. I’ve had gluten-free and gluten-reduced beers before, such as Wicked Weed’s Gluten FREEk and Lenny Boy’s Life in the South (made with grits) and enjoyed those as well. While I probably won’t seek out gluten-free or gluten-reduced beers solely because of their gluten content or lack thereof, I definitely won’t skip them over for fear they’ll taste strange or not like beer.

What are some of your favorite gluten-free or gluten-reduced beers?