What are Gluten-Free Beverages?
Gluten-free beer itself is a fairly new concept. Going back a decade, a customer would be sorely disappointed if they went looking for it at a grocery store. The recent rise in awareness of gluten allergies or sensitivities is effectively changing this old status quo. Gluten-free everything is now a staple at the grocery stores. However, even with so many products on the shelf with the GF packaging it can still be a mystery as to what gluten-free actually is. This is especially in the case of beer, which is traditionally brewed with large traces of gluten.
Before diving into how beer can be gluten-free, what even is gluten? Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye. In addition, gluten can be found in products that are grown, milled, and manufactured near wheat, barley, and rye, known as cross-contact. Since one of the main ingredients in beer is grain, beer is a gluten bomb unless brewed specifically to be gluten-free or gluten-reduced.
According to the TTB, any alcoholic beverages that are made from ingredients without gluten can claim that they are gluten-free. This distinction provides the guideline that malt beverages made with the traditional grains cannot be legally labeled gluten-free but instead can have a “gluten-reduced” label. Only after being treated with an enzyme that removes gluten can a product be labeled “gluten-reduced.” Brewers use an enzyme called Brewers Clarex to breakdown gluten protein chains so that it’s undetectable by lab tests and, supposedly, the human body. Typically, these “gluten-reduced” products contain less than the FDA limit of 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. However, some consumers with Celiac or gluten sensitivity have claimed that they felt ill after drinking it, so people with these dietary restrictions should proceed with caution. Drinkers who are concerned about the validity of the “gluten-reduced” beers can check on the brewer’s website for the gluten level lab result which is tested on every batch.
Consumers don’t necessarily have to worry about amounts of gluten or possible consequences of drinking “gluten-reduced” however because there is still the option of drinking beer entirely gluten-free. Brewers can create their beer with gluten-free bases such as buckwheat, millet, rice, and sorghum to avoid gluten being in their product to begin with.
But what about wine, ciders, and spirits?
Ciders, although generally thrown into the same category as traditional beer, are actually a very different beverage starting with the process of making them. While beer is brewed, cider is created through a fermentation process that is much more similar to the winemaking process. On top of that beer uses the many different ingredients listed above, while ciders rely on apples, making it a naturally gluten-free product.
Wine is made from grapes, also making it a naturally gluten-free product. However, it can be cross-contaminated with gluten during the winemaking process. For wine, gluten can be used during the fining process to clarify the product, but that is a rare occurrence. Barrel aging with the wheat paste can also be a culprit of cross-contamination and even though most testing shows that the gluten left behind is well below 20 ppm, people with high sensitivity may be affected by it. Lastly, the biggest gluten culprit is wine coolers that are mixed with malt beverages. When purchasing coolers check the label carefully for the type of mixers used.
Spirits generally get a pass for being gluten-free but there is a debate with alcohol distilled from grains whiskey, bourbon, and grain vodka. Alcohol distillation is a process in which fermented liquid is boiled and the alcohol evaporated and condensed into a different container. It’s a tough argument to say that gluten passed through the distillation process in this manner, which is why spirits are generally accepted as gluten-free. If you’re adamant about staying away from alcohol made with grains then look for corn or potato vodka, 100% agave tequila, rum, and brandy.
At CSB, we provide several choices of gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer and we hope to bring more in as the gluten-free grows. Here are some of our options:
Deschutes Lil’ Squeezy Juicy Ale
New Belgium Glutiny Pale Ale
Stone Delicious IPA
Written by Jan Fogg