Less gluten, more choice

A few years ago a friend who had adopted a gluten-free diet asked if I knew of any good gluten-free beers.

Based on the handful of gluten-free beers on the market at the time, I suggested he'd be better off drinking a good cider, which is naturally gluten-free.

But times have changed. There are now a slew of choices, some of which are produced by big names like Dogfish Head.

The shift is because gluten-free diets have gone mainstream. Celiac disease affects at least 3 million Americans. Many more choose to avoid the protein found in wheat, barley and rye for digestive issues, to lose weight or because of gluten's role in skin and respiratory problems.

Despite the rising number of breweries producing gluten-free beers, the question remained: Are the beers any good?

After tasting many of them, the answer is "sometimes." The best are good because the breweries producing them are brewing gluten-free beers in the same way they make their other beers. Take Dogfish Head's Tweason'ale, which is brewed with sorghum rather than barley, along with strawberries and buckwheat honey. Like many Dogfish Head beers, Tweason'ale is unconventional but also clean and crisp, sweet but not too sweet, with a bright tartness.

And then there's Two Brothers' Prairie Path, which was actually the second beer the Warrenville-based brewery ever produced. While the beer is brewed with malted barley, a few years ago it began noticing that the beer gets cloudy at cold temperatures thanks to certain protein molecules bonding together (as the beer warms up, the molecules break apart).

To try to prevent the phenomenon, the brewery used a new plant-based enzyme that would prevent the molecules from bonding together.

About eight months later, Jason Ebel, the brewery's owner, mentioned the enzyme to a scientist friend. The friend suggested that a side effect of the enzyme might be that the beer was now gluten-free. After a year of testing, the brewery determined that it was and in spring 2012 decided to note that it was "crafted to remove gluten" on its label (it can't say the beer is gluten-free because the product is made from a gluten-based product).

Since adding the "crafted to remove gluten" note on its label, the beer's sales have increased 10-fold, making Prairie Path its third best-selling beer.

Four to try

Dogfish Head Tweason'ale: A sweet strawberry aroma dominates the nose of this red-hued beer that has notes of strawberry, blood orange and earth.

Green's Gluten Free Beers Amber Ale: Dark amber in color with a bready, nutty nose and notes of green apples and figs.

Steadfast Beer Sorghum Pale Ale: An amber-colored beer that smells of flowers, citrus and molasses with a flavor that brings to mind caramel, pine and earth.

Two Brothers Prairie Path: Golden in color with a grainy, slightly fruity smell and a bready, spicy, fruity flavor.