Gluten-Free Brewing: Tips from the Pros

Beer contains four basic ingredients: barley, water, hops and yeast. Of course barley contains gluten, so what do you do if you suffer from celiac disease? Not drink beer? We think not! Thankfully, more and more brewers have begun brewing gluten-free beer. With advice from these pros, you can brew your own gluten-free beer too!

In 2012, Ryan Bove (left) left a career as a mechanical engineer to start Aurochs Brewing Company in Emsworth, Pennsylvania, with his childhood friend, Doug Foster (right). Both co-founders are required to follow a strict gluten-free diet for medical reasons. Aurochs uses unique, ancient grains, such as millet, quinoa, and amaranth to brew great-tasting craft beers that are naturally gluten-free.

Gluten-free brewing is in its infancy. Although this poses a lot of challenges, it also presents a lot of opportunities because there are a variety of ingredients such as sorghum, buckwheat, chestnuts, millet, quinoa, amaranth, and teff to choose from that may have been underutilized and not fully explored in the past.

Our flagship beer, the Aurochs White Ale, is our spin on a witbier and utilizes millet and quinoa. We also spice the beer with orange peel, coriander, and chamomile. We chose these ingredients because they are 100% gluten-free from start to finish and taste great. Our goal from the beginning has been to create beers that can be enjoyed by anyone, and we feel we have accomplished that. Aside from being naturally gluten-free and tasting great, millet is really good in terms of its enzymatic strength, and for this particular style, we feel that quinoa is a great complement because of its high protein content.

Most gluten-free grains require a specialized step-mash profile to achieve suitable extraction levels. For example, a single-step mash with millet at traditional mash temperatures will have a 30% yield, which is significantly less than 2-row barley, which tends to have an 80% yield. More complex mash profiles can generate millet yields of 60-70%.

A second issue is the free amino nitrogen (FAN) levels tend to be slightly lower than traditional beers. For example, sorghum syrup has about 70% of the FAN of barley-based syrup. It is important to pay extra attention to oxygen levels, yeast handling, and the percentage of the grain bill devoted to adjuncts to ensure proper fermentation.

Another challenge for the all-grain gluten-free homebrewer to note is that higher gravity tends to be more challenging because the majority of gluten-free grains are small and huskless, making it more difficult to separate the wort. To add to this difficulty, the lower extraction levels of gluten-free grains tend to require a larger quantity of grains to hit desired gravities. At the same time, there are plenty of options to improve wort separation or boost gravity in the boil kettle.

I see two contrasting approaches to developing gluten-free recipes. It may be easier to replicate a style if that style derives the majority of its flavor from an aspect of the recipe other than the grain bill, such as spices, yeast, or hops. If you were trying to submit a gluten-free beer into a competition that evaluates beers based on style conformance, this would be a good approach. An alternative approach would be to examine the strengths of the gluten-free ingredients and play to those strengths whether or not it will allow you to conform to a specific barley-based style. We tend to use both approaches when developing new recipes.

My advice for homebrewers who are new to gluten-free brewing; first and foremost, take the time to understand what is and is not gluten-free. There is a lot of misinformation out there, even among the professional brewing community. For example, most liquid yeast strains are not gluten-free. Second, start with sorghum syrup and rice syrup to eliminate much of the complexity with all-grain brewing. Once you have mastered extract brewing, then make the jump to all-grain gluten-free. Third, get creative. The blessing and the curse of brewing gluten-free is that there is no guidebook.

In 1992 Crawford Moran wondered why the city of Atlanta where he was born did not have its own brewery. And with one stupid question began his career in the brewing business. He founded Dogwood Brewing Co., is the Brewmaster and Co-owner at both 5 Seasons Westside and 5 Seasons North, and is Co-owner and Brewmaster at the just opened Slice & Pint Pizza/Brewery where he is busy building a new brewery.

I brewed my first gluten-free beer two to three years ago. I wouldn’t say there is a high demand. I just had many guests beg me to brew a good one. We want to be the place where all the beer lovers love to go and there are some folks who are beer lovers, but whose bodies just can’t handle the gluten any more. I did a tasting of all of the gluten-free beers that were on the shelves and they all sucked. The gluten-free beers I tasted were really dumbed down, much like mass-produced American beer. Barley adds the body to beer and lots of depth. But people just made the gluten-free beers so simple so they would offend no one.

Hops don’t have gluten, so I thought it would be fun to make a nice American pale ale, which we call Elmer’s Gluten-Free. The lack of barley definitely creates a relative lack of body compared to a “real” beer, so I think the hop additions add a layer or two of complexity. In a way, it makes up (a portion) for that lack of body and depth of character.

To make up for the lack of barley, I use sorghum and buckwheat and then I add more hops than any gluten-free beer I have tasted out there. It has about 45 IBUs with great American pine and citrus hops. At first I tried to malt my own buckwheat. I got some from a local farmer and thought it would be a good idea. It wasn’t. I am a brewer and not a maltster.

I use equipment that is only used for gluten-free to avoid the risk of cross contamination. I also use a dried yeast so it is not grown up in an environment with malts that have gluten, and I do not repitch the yeast.

I don’t think it is more difficult to make a gluten-free beer. Certainly there are different considerations since you can’t use the basic malts. But like everything in life, you can make it better if you try.

Issue: November 2013