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Brewers are making more gluten-free beers than ever, but some are better than others. Expert Michael Moser found five great ones that are worth seeking out.
If you're at all familiar with how beer is made, you know that its most common key ingredients are barley and wheat—both of which contain gluten. Luckily for those who are sensitive to the protein, there are ways to make beer that doesn't contain gluten (or contains very low levels).
The most popular brewing option is to forgo traditional grains in favor of sorghum, a grass that has served as the base for many alcoholic beverages in China and southern Africa for centuries. In 2006, the Milwaukee-based Lakefront Brewery launched a sorghum-based beer called New Grist and shortly thereafter, Anheuser-Busch launched its own sorghum-based beer called Redbridge. Other ingredients used in gluten-free brewing include rice, millet, specific varieties of oats, buckwheat, honey, Belgian candi sugar and chestnuts. Each lends its own characteristics to the finished product.
Brewers can also create a regular beer and de-glutenize it. Typically, anyone doing this publishes test results to show that their beers contain very low gluten levels.
Not long ago, the choices for gluten-free or gluten-minimal beer were few and far between. But rising demand has ushered in a surge of new options. I recently tasted a number of them, hoping to find at least one that could hold its own next to conventional beer. Here are the winners:
Lakefront Brewery New Grist. America's first gluten-free beer is named for its grist (the combination of grains), but the more remarkable thing is that it's legally allowed to be called beer. Before Lakefront Brewery petitioned the government for an exception, anything called beer had to made from grist containing at least 25 percent malted barley. This rice-and-sorghum beer pours a clear gold, with a quickly dissipating head. The aromatics are lacking and the taste is somewhat sweeter than you'd expect from a beer in this style, but the bitterness of the hops cuts through. It's a very drinkable brew that gives the impression of a cross between a pilsner and a cider.
DogfishHead Tweason'ale. Dogfish Head is no stranger to alternative fermentations, with a portfolio that includes several brews based on ancient recipes. Tweason'ale, a sorghum-based beer with strawberries and buckwheat honey, drinks like something between rosé, mead and sparkling wine. It's a fine substitute for beer, even if it wouldn't be mistaken for it.
Omission Pale Ale. Rather than find a substitute for barley, Portland, Oregon's Widmer Brothers Brewing makes a standard beer, then puts it through a proprietary process that removes the gluten. An independent lab tests each batch, and the results are available through the Omission website. My test bottle came it at less then 10 parts per million (ppm), well below the FDA's requirement for a product labeled gluten-free. From a taste perspective, this method works wonders. This beer tastes like beer: There's a malt backbone, a piney American hop profile and light citrus notes. It's crisp and dry, just like you'd expect of any pale ale.
Estrella Damm Daura. Another barley-based, gluten-removed beer, this Spanish offering drinks like many traditional, European-style pilsners. It's clear and golden, with a faint ring of foam that lingers on the edge of the glass. Since 2011, Estrella has had each batch tested, and guarantees that gluten levels are below 3 ppm. If you've been on a gluten-restricted diet your entire life and have always wondered what Heineken tastes like, look no further.
Green's Enterprise Dry-Hopped Lager. This English brewery has been making gluten-free beers for nearly a decade, and offers a full range from light to dark. Bursting with hops, this Belgian-style lager is made with millet, buckwheat, rice and sorghum. The result is a gluten-free beer that mitigates the shortcomings of each of its parts, most notably the cidery notes common among brews made primarily with sorghum. It's light and refreshing, and it's helped out by an extra jolt of aroma from dry hopping (a technique that involves adding hops to the beer at a later stage than usual). Among truly gluten-free offerings (as opposed to gluten-removed), this is a clear winner.