I often wonder how I would enjoy life with a sensitivity to gluten. Spaghetti is hands-down my favorite food and I would have a hard time giving up sandwiches.
But imagining the horror of a beer-free existence led me to explore gluten-free brews, and what the gluten-intolerant imbiber might face.
Celiacs and those with gluten sensitivity can't tolerate the protein in grains such as barley, rye and wheat, main ingredients in the traditional brewing process. Creative brewers worldwide have heard the call of the gluten-free consumer and created several versions of gluten-free beers made with sorghum, millet, honey, rice or buckwheat.
Russ Klisch, president of Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery, says the demand for gluten-free beer came to his attention because the father of one of his brew-masters was diagnosed with celiac disease. "That's a bad trick to play on someone, to tell them they can't ever have a beer again."
Launched in 2005, their New Grist is brewed from rice and sorghum (another grass raised for grain) and now constitutes 25 percent of their production. The yeast strains are grown on molasses instead of barley to completely isolate gluten from the beverage, and the University of Nebraska Food Allergen Center tests each batch before fermentation.
Says Klisch, "I once had a doctor tell me that beer is the No. 1 reason that people break their gluten-free diets."
New Grist's crisp, citrusy flavor helps fill the void.
Brad Buzzi, a bartender at Map Room in Chicago, has seen an increase in gluten-free beer drinkers. "We have someone come in and order one once a night, where it used to be once a week." Their biggest seller, Bard's Tale Bard's Gold, tastes close enough to substitute for an amber beer.
3 Floyds Brewpub in Munster, Ind., carries Green's, a line of gluten-free Belgians from DeProef Brouwerij. Manager Dan Tompkins describes them as beers "of distinction that are stylistically true."
If the Belgians are making them, they must be worth drinking. I gathered a group of unsuspecting (but not gluten-sensitive) friends to critically taste them and some other readily available gluten-free beers.
New Grist: Crafted from sorghum and rice, the New Grist tastes like a summer beer, with its litchi aroma, champagne color and tropical, citrusy taste.
Redbridge, Anheuser-Busch: This sorghum beer was less satisfying to tasters. The bubbly, amber-hued beer, while dry, tasted watery and slightly medicinal, like watered-down pop. A unanimous thumbs down.
Bard's Gold: Made from malted sorghum by a company founded by celiacs, this amber lager has a winy flavor but lacks depth.
Damm Daura, Estrella: This Spanish lager shows a creamy head, and its flowery hop character seems balanced. "Tastes like a can of beer."
Green's: These three Belgians, made from buckwheat, millet, rice and sorghum, varied greatly in popularity. Discovery Amber Ale had a rather shallow flavor, but its fruitiness was not unpleasant. Quest Tripel Blonde Ale suffered from a Juicy Fruit-like flavor, and Endeavour Dubbel Dark Ale was odd with its sweetness and root beer profile.
Putting gluten-free beers to the test
Grist gluten-free beer (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)