To Gluten or Not to Gluten?
In a recent Beerploma.com article I reviewed St. Paul’s Burning Brothers Brewing–one of the only gluten free breweries in the country. Check HERE for that article if you haven’t read it for more background on gluten free beers…then come back! The upshot is that I didn’t love most of the beers and found some unusual flavors in most of them. I’m judging these beers based on current beer style guidelines and my own personal taste of course. I feel somewhat bad about my review and do want this local brewery to succeed in their mission of providing a gluten free beer option to the plethora of folks who can’t tolerate it. As a result I’ve taken it upon myself to try some other gluten free beers and compare them to Burning Brother’s products: comparing apples to apples.
I decided to track down a couple of other gluten free beers and got several suggestions of locally available beers from the Facebook group Beer People. However, I ran into a few snags. First off, I didn’t want to buy a whole 6 pack of a beer I might hate. Second, there really aren’t many commercially available gluten free beers to choose from in our market. I did my best!
When I saw one called Delicious IPA from Stone Brewing my hopes were raised, but were soon dashed when I discovered that the beer was “Gluten Reduced”. These are a new class of beer that is brewed traditionally with barley or wheat but then enzymes are used to break down the gluten and hence decrease or remove a large proportion of it. For those with true Celiac disease these may still have enough gluten in them to cause problems, but perhaps some people with simple sensitivity or mild cases could benefit. Personally I wouldn’t recommend them for those with Celiac. The popular Omission brand I’ve seen all over the place are made with this process as well.
Curious about this Stone beer, I tried it out. It has a light golden color with excellent clarity and a large persistent white head. Aroma is strongly redolent of lemon and grapefruit rind with a subtle malt sweetness at the end. Flavor was pretty much what I expect from a Stone beer–smack-you-upside-the-head hops! Hopping was unbalanced with too much bitterness for the malt…but still a decent enough IPA for drinking. Malt could be a bit more prominent. Flavor was very similar to the aroma. Not bad, and certainly had “regular” IPA flavors. 3.5
My findings on this beer were not surprising to me: a regular beer with reduction of gluten still tastes like a regular beer. If you truly have Celiac disease pay attention to if your beer is gluten free or just reduced…
As due diligence to our local gluten free brewery I felt that I needed to try some true gluten free beers.
This is a brewery out of Belgium.
IPA: The first I tested was the IPA. Not until I got it home and opened it (from MGM in Waconia) did I realize that that the beer was at least 6 months old–not a good thing for any IPA! This is what I get for shopping at a place that doesn’t really take care of their beer selection. But I tried it anyway. As expected, the hops were non-existent. I did get that same burnt and acrid flavor in this beer that I got in a few of the BB beers, and am starting to wonder if this is a by-product of sorghum!
Thinking that a Belgian brewery would be more skilled at Belgian styles, I picked up a bottle of the Tripel and Dubbel from Haskell’s in Chanhassen. I checked the expiration dates this time.
Dubbel: 7% ABV, made with millet, buckwheat, rice, and sorghum. This is a pleasant garnet color with excellent clarity and a thick, creamy dark tan head. On aroma I get fruity notes, dates, raisins, sweetness and hint of alcohol. Flavor is notable for some plum and carmelized sugar. Body is borderline thin. Finish has a slight chemical flavor that fades into classic clove of Belgian yeast. Overall has a dry finish and decent yeast character to add complexity. So far the one of the best gluten free beers I’ve had, but still not quite up to par with many of my favorite dubbels. I rate it a 3.5
Tripel: 8.5% ABV, made with millet, buckwheat, rice, and sorghum. Aroma has lots of cider notes, hint of sulfur, white sugar, alcohol, and bit of clove. Appearance has slight haze and light golden color. Medium sized white head that persists well. Flavor starts out with and hit of aggressive hot alcohol sweetness that quickly fades to a very off-putting bitter/smoky/burning astringent finish that makes me want to scrape my tongue. Yuck. Overall just terrible on flavor. Burning Brothers Pyro is better than this for sure. 2
This is a brewery out of Quebec Canada who specialize in gluten free beers. I discovered a cool 4 pack sampler of their 16 oz cans so I could try the range of their beers.
IPA: 6% ABV, made with millet, buckwheat, corn, black rice, candy syrup, and corn malto-dextrin. Aroma is a bit sweet and fruity, some orange juice. Appearance is deep gold with the slightest haze. Fine white head is the the most persistent I’ve seen with a gluten free beer so far. Flavor shows up front citrus character that fades to a smoky middle and an off-dry fruity/cidery finish. Not astringent. Body is light to medium–better than most of these. Overall not bad but has the hopping of a mild pale ale and not an IPA. The smoke is off-putting but mild. I did drink the whole beer. 3.5
American Pale Ale: 5.5% ABV, made with millet, buckwheat, corn, candy sugar, demerara sugar, and quinoa. Aroma is just like the IPA but a bit less hoppy. Appearance is pretty similar as well. Flavor is still a bit too sweet. Very little in the way of hops here. I get more of the acrid burnt character that I found in the IPA but less hops to hide behind. I also found this in some of the Burning Brothers beers. Finish is astringent. I didn’t finish the beer. 2.75
Blonde: 4.5% ABV, made with millet, corn, demerrara sugar. Aroma is very cidery with the skin of a Granny Smith being front and center. No hops in aroma. Appearance with excellent clarity, straw color, and quickly fading white head. Flavor has initially spritzy carbonation that fades to a thin bodied finish. Fairly bland (but it is a blonde) and apple cider flavors are prominent. And is astringent and sharp. This beer is tolerable but I’d rather actually drink a hard cider. 3
Red: 5% ABV, made with buckwheat, millet, molasses, chestnut, candy syrup, quinoa. Aroma is roasty, nutty, slightly burnt, with light caramel. Appearance is a deep ruby color with excellent clarity. Fine lacy white head. Flavor is more complex than most of these. Not much in the way of hops. Molasses and caramel present without being overly sweet. Nutty notes add compexity. Body is a little light but not quite thin. More like an Irish red than American amber/red. Hint of roast in finish but not astringent. Pretty well balanced beer and by far the best gluten free beer I’ve had to date. 3.75
So the upshot? I did find a couple of decent gluten free beers but none of them really made me want to order one of these instead of a classically brewed beer. My top three of this (limited) sampling were Glutenberg Red, Green’s Dubbel, and Burning Brother’s Roasted Coffee Ale. Many (if not all) gluten free beers I tried had strange flavors (burnt, smoky, astringent) that made these all a tough sell. Not surprisingly, the three I liked the most had enough other flavors going on to hide some of that background flavor.
Doing this review did make me think about this group of beers and really compare them to each other rather than just to the classic styles they are attempting to emulate. In the end I find Burning Brothers beers to not be too far off from the others, but I think they could still up their game a bit to become better than they currently are. First off add some freaking hops to your IPA!
And also in the end, if I were to develop Celiac disease I’d probably embrace hard ciders before I’d really get into the gluten free beers!