Issue 30

Gluten-Free Beers That Don’t Suck

Gluten-Free Beers That Don’t Suck

I have Celiac Disease. It’s an auto-immune disorder that causes the body’s immune system to identify gluten as an interloper and attack it. When I found out I had it a little over a year ago, I was told that I had done extensive damage to my small intestine and would need to eliminate gluten from my diet immediately. Even worse, I was strongly recommended to find a new line of work. My career as a brewer was over.

My friend Josh once asked me what beer I missed the most. I was a bit caught off guard. It had been over a year since I last imbibed, and thinking about which brew I longed for most was almost painful. Still, his question had merit and as a former brewer, I suppose I had a unique perspective.

Unfortunately, I didn’t offer him that perspective. Instead, I copped-out and told him High Life. Now don’t get me wrong, I love High Life and it will always hold a special place in my heart – but even then I knew my answer was bullshit. The truth was I didn’t want to give an honest answer; I didn’t even want to think about it. Why torture myself?

I was pissed. I had to quit a job I loved, and my only recourse was to drown my sorrows in Red Bridge (more on this drivel later)? I became determined to find a palatable, gluten-free beer in this town – or failing in that, make one myself. What follows is a brief review of the best I could find, and an anecdote about the worst one ever conceived.

Let’s start with the aforementioned Red Bridge. April 5th, 2012, Opening Day at Wrigley Field – I can barely contain my excitement. I love the Cubs so much it’s embarrassing. Yes, I realize they are a laughable collection of dopes that more resemble a bunch of guys slapping porterhouses together than ballplayers, but I still love them. Gushing aside, I didn’t like the match-up this particular afternoon and I was getting pretty antsy.

I decided it would be wise to check the concessions for an alcoholic beverage befitting a man of my dietary needs. As luck would have it, the lady at the counter produced a Red Bridge! I had never had one. It being an Anheuser-Busch product, I just assumed it was terrible, but what the hell – it was only 12 dollars. Oh my heavens it was bad. It is not even worth writing about except for this warning – don’t ever drink it, okay? I would’ve rather had a couple of Old Styles and dealt with the repercussions for the next few weeks than drink that stuff. Oh, and lest I forget, the Cubs’ bullpen walked three straight including the tying run, eventually losing in the ninth. The moral? The Cubs are bad, Red Bridge is worse.

On to the real reviews! Let’s start with my old friend, New Grist. Made by the fine folks at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, its greatest strength is its ubiquity. Out of all the gluten free beers in the area (not including Red Bridge because it sucks, remember?), it is definitely the easiest to find. It’s my personal go-to beer, not only because of its availability, but also because it’s quite refreshing. It pours a very light yellow with a rapidly dissipating head (it more resembles a cider in this way), and smells faintly of fresh grain.

There is virtually no hop character to speak of in either the nose or the flavor, which allows the somewhat fruity character of the sorghum to be instantly recognized. This can be off-putting at first (I remember not liking New Grist initially), but I’ve come to enjoy it for its own unique flavor. On a side note, do yourself a favor and give the LGK cocktail a try: Two parts tequila, one part Cointreau, a hearty squeeze of fresh lime, two parts grapefruit juice, and top with New Grist. That, my friends, is a summer jam for the ages.

Next up is a new favorite of mine, Bard’s Tale. Produced in Utica, NY, it is the closest thing to an actual beer that I have tried, mainly because the traditional brewing process is mimicked as closely as possible, but instead of using malted barley or wheat, malted sorghum is used. Most other gluten-free beers will use a variety of extracts – mostly sorghum – to acquire the sugars necessary for fermentation. “Extract brewing” can result in good beer, but it’s much more limited and essentially a brewing shortcut. If you’ve ever bought one of those brewing kits then you should know what I’m talking about.

Back to Bard’s; it pours a deep copper color with a crisp white head. The malt is strong on the nose with a slightly fruity undertone. The flavor is similar; starting with a strong graininess that rolls fluidly into an aftertaste of acidic fruit. Again, there is little hop character to speak of, but in this particular beer it definitely fits; it sort of feels like a gluten-free version of a lighter German lager – like a Helles. There is a downside, however. At the moment, it is only available in Council Bluffs and Lincoln, and even there it is hard to find. Given its quality, I have to believe it will be more widely available soon.

When Henry Ford said, “People can have the Model T in any color – so long as it’s black”, old Hank could have easily been talking about gluten-free beers. There are myriad different beer styles in the world – and gluten-free folks need more variety. Enter New Planet’s Off Grid Pale Ale and Green’s Belgian Dubbel Dark Ale. New Planet’s pale pours light amber with a lasting, creamy head. Unlike the previous two beers, this one appears to have hops in it. There is a heavy, piney nose that gives it a west coast IPA sort of feel. New Planet does have a distinctive fruity flavor from the sorghum, but it actually compliments the hoppy character of the beer and is definitely not a hindrance. It’s a bit pricier than the previous two beers and only comes in four-packs, but it’s a must for folks who dig the hops.

Last, but certainly not least (which would be Red Bridge), we have Green’s Belgian Dubbel. It’s by far the most ambitious gluten-free beer I’ve ever had, and it comes pretty damn close to hitting the mark. It pours a deep brown with a persistent off-white head and smells faintly sweet with notes of dark fruit. The flavor profile is nearly spot-on, a bit of alcohol on the tongue finishing with a Belgian, sugary sweetness. The familiar sorghum characteristics are present, which are the only things distracting from this otherwise excellent representation of a classic style. It comes as no surprise that this beer is actually produced in Belgium. It is sold individually in 500 milliliter bottles and comes highly recommended.

I hope this served as a good primer for folks who are just entering the gluten-free world – or more importantly, people who only drink Red Bridge (shudder). There are reasonable options out there, and more are showing up all the time. I’ll never forget my old favorites, and these beers probably won’t make you forget yours either, but health is paramount. As for the rest of you, I only have a few words of advice: enjoy every High Life.

Lucas Korth

Lucas Korth

Lucas Korth has been writing for Food & Spirits Magazine for probably over a handful of issues. Longevity is his greatest strength. He enjoys cycling, baseball, his wife Becky and their cat, Mr. Jingles. If you'd like to tell him his articles stink in person, he can often be found at Jake's Cigars in Benson; where he is the bar manager. He is remarkably unfunny.

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