Celiac disease is the intolerance to gluten, a common protein found in most grains including barley, wheat, rye, oats — the grains most commonly used in beer production — as well as spelt, kamut and triticale. The gluten proteins trigger an immune response in the small intestine of people suffering from the disease. The only treatment for those affected is to avoid foods made with gluten-containing grains.
But there is hope for the beer-loving celiac sufferer. Several grains that do not contain gluten — corn, rice, sorghum, buckwheat, millet and quinoa — can be used to make beer.
Currently, a few breweries in the United States have begun producing gluten-free beer. Bard’s Tale was the first US brewery to introduce a gluten-free beer, Dragon’s Gold, a lager beer brewed with sorghum. Dragon’s Gold is available in many northeastern states and on the west coast. Late in 2006, Anheuser-Busch rolled out another gluten-free lager, called Redbridge, made with sorghum and rice. Around the world, there are a few craft breweries that make gluten-free beer. In Africa, locally-made sour sorghum beers have been common for a long time, since sorghum is a widely planted crop there. SABMiller also makes a clear sorghum beverage there called Eagle.
For the homebrewer, brewing gluten-free beer is certainly possible. However, for all-grain brewers, it is much more difficult than brewing a traditional-style beer.
“It’s a hell of a lot more difficult brewing a good gluten-free beer than people think,” Craig Belser, co-owner and brewmaster at Bard’s Tale Beer declares, effectively tossing out a challenge to homebrewers everywhere.
The main challenge is that malted versions of gluten-free grains are not usually commercially available, so you will have to malt your own. In addition, many gluten-free grains are huskless and the malts made from them are low in diastatic power. And finally, the gelatinization temperature of the starches in most gluten-free grains is higher than that of most brewing grains.
The Extract Option
For extract brewers, sorghum syrups can be used as the base for a gluten-free beer. Briess Malting makes two such syrups from white sorghum. The syrup called BriesSweet White Sorghum Syrup 45 DE High Maltose is an amber extract with a carbohydrate profile similar to malt extract (or, once diluted, wort). The level of protein and free amino nitrogen (FAN) is also similar to malt extract. It will yield a wort that will exhibit approximately 75% apparent attenuation when fermented with brewers yeast. Their other syrup — BriesSweet White Sorghum Syrup 60 DE — contains more simple sugars and would yield a more fermentable wort (around 80–85% apparent attenuation) and a drier beer. Bob Hansen, technical service manager at Briess, says the syrups yield a “grain-like flavor,” albeit a different flavor than malted grains as the sorghum syrup is made from raw, not malted, sorghum.
Sorghum syrup can be combined with corn sugar, cane sugar, corn syrup, rice syrup, molasses, honey, fruit juices or other sugars (except malt extract) to make a gluten-free wort. Keep in mind, however, that all of the carbohydrates from these sources are completely or nearly completely fermentable and will lead to a drier, less full-bodied, beer. (The protein content of sugar sources may also be low enough that adding yeast nutrients will be necessary.)
Belser cautions that brewing a beer exclusively from syrups and sugars may lack flavor and body. Without the kilning that malted grains go through, the flavors of the grain will not be as developed.
“What you’re dealing with here are beers that don’t quite taste like beer anyway,” Belser says. “If you use one of the grain extracts, it isn’t really going to taste like beer. You just can’t get there. They taste close, but if you don’t have malts you won’t have beer with character.”
If you’re an extract brewer and you want to enhance the flavor of your gluten-free beers, you have a couple options to add grain or malt flavors.
Extract with extras
For an extract brewer making a 5-gallon (19-L) batch using sorghum syrup, try toasting 0.5–1.5 lbs. (0.23–0.68 kg) of raw sorghum grain in your oven (at 350 °F/177 °C) and steeping it (uncrushed) to infuse your gluten-free wort with some additional flavor. Toast the grain for 10–30 minutes, depending on the type and level of flavor you desire. You may want to take a small test batch of toasted sorghum, pulling out a small sample every few minutes, to help you fine-tune your toasting schedule.
Of course, toasting unmalted sorghum is not going to yield exactly the same flavors as found in kilned barley specialty malts. But, it will make your beer more beer-like. Alternately, you can malt a small amount of sorghum, as all-grain brewers will need to do, and perform a partial mash.
The first consideration is, of course, procuring the right grains. You should be able to find many gluten-free grains in better supermarkets or health food stores. If not, try searching for them online. Be aware that finding the right grains can be somewhat expensive, as fairly large amounts of grain will be needed. But for someone who can’t drink beer otherwise, every sip will certainly be worth the price.
Also be aware that some grains from some sources may be sold as seed, not for consumption (by humans or other animals). This seed may be treated with things you do not want in your beer.
White sorghum and rice are the most popular grains for brewing gluten-free beers. Although corn does not contain gluten, Belser has not had good luck with it in the brewery.
Malting Your Grains
OK, here is where the main difficulty comes in — malting your grain at home. The basic idea is to sprout the grains, then dry them. To do this, first soak the grains in a bucket of water, flushing every eight hours or so and aerating well. Belser recommends using a fish tank aerator to get plenty of air circulating. Repeat this process over a couple days until the grains begin to sprout. Next, dry them with a dehydrator. Once dry, the grains can be kilned gently in the oven on low heat. (In this case, you will want to heat the grains only as much as a base grain would be, not to the extent that specialty grains such as crystal or darker malts are. However, you may want to separately “roast” a small amount of your homemade malt to a greater degree for color and flavor.) Keep a close eye to get the desired color and flavor characteristics desired. Some dehydrators can get hot enough for light roasting as well.
Mashing a Major Mess
Once the malted grains are dried and kilned, they are ready to be mashed. A single infusion mash may work, but a decoction mash is a much better option. Decoction mashing was developed to get the most out of the poorly-modified and unevenly modified malts of the past. Until you gain significant proficiency at malting at home, a little extra work in the mash will likely pay big dividends in terms of extract efficiency. (See the December 2006 issue for how to perform a decoction mash.) Since sorghum is huskless, you will want to add rice hulls — around 0.5 lbs. (0.23 kg) for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch — to your mash in order to be able to lauter efficiently.
There is one other factor to keep in mind. Sorghum and rice, Belser says, have gelatinization temperatures that are higher than traditional beer-making grains. “With sorghum, corn and rice, the gelatinization temperature is 180 °F (82 °C),” Belser explains. “So you have to take it to a low boil, but there are fewer enzymes left to convert the starches to sugar.” Belser has found a way around this problem, but as it took him three years to “find the perfect balance,” he won’t divulge his trade secret.
One option for homebrewers would be to add a final step to a traditional triple decoction mash. Heat the entire mash to 180 °F (82 °C), then stir in an amylase enzyme preparation — about 1 tsp. for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch — and let the mash rest until an iodine test gives a negative result. (Amylase enzyme preparations come from fungi and do not contain gluten.) Once the mashing and lautering is completed, the brewing process becomes typical of a regular beer. “If you’re using your malted grains, you’re good to go,” Belser says.
Yeast and Growth Media
While almost any hops can be chosen depending on the desired flavor profile, some yeast strains work better than others. Through experimentation, Belser says ale yeast — English, Irish and American — works best, while Belgian yeast doesn’t react well with sorghum or rice. Some lager yeasts can work too.
Yeast creates another potential issue for celiacs, too. Liquid yeasts are cultured in a medium made partially from barley and will contaminate the beer. Dry yeast is cultivated on beet sugar, cane sugar or molasses and can be pitched directly to the carboy. If you make a yeast starter, it must also be made gluten-free, too.
To use a liquid yeast strain, you would need to plate out the yeast on a petri dish or slant, then grow up the culture from a single yeast colony, using molasses or sorghum syrup as your culture media. (See the January-February 2005 issue for more information on yeast handling techniques.)
Gluten-free beers do not taste exactly like “regular” beers. Many brewers report that their first efforts seem thin and sour. Many of the African sorghum beers are sour due to “wild” fermentations, but sorghum beer can have a sour edge to it, even when fermented with brewers yeast.
Compared to “regular” brewing, the ingredients available for gluten-free beer are limited. So you will have to use your imagination and everything you know about brewing when formulating your gluten-free beer recipes.
Finally, when making a gluten-free beer you need to avoid cross-contamination. If you consider basic brewing hygiene tantamount, double your efforts for this project as even the smallest amount of gluten can make some celiac sufferers ill. Either buy a second grain mill or very thoroughly clean your present mill. Store and mill your barley malts away from your gluten-free malts. Replace “soft surfaces” in your brewery — such as siphon hoses, airlocks and rubber stoppers — if you have brewed “glutenous” beers before. And finally, be extra diligent in cleaning carboys, kettles, utensils, funnels and anything else that could come into contact with the beer.
If you attempt to brew a gluten-free beer — especially an all-grain brew — you will be venturing into an area of homebrewing that is not well-charted. Take good notes on your malting sessions, brewing sessions and beers and be prepared to experiment.
Making a gluten-free beer may take a little more effort to produce, but for the celiacs who will now be able to enjoy a beer, the payoff never stops.
Simple Simon Sorghum Beer
5 gallons/19 L, extract; OG = 1.047 FG = 1.011; IBU = 22 SRM = 8 ABV = 4.7%
- 6 lb. 11 oz. (3.0 kg) BriesSweet White Sorghum Syrup 45 DE High Maltose
- 0.50 lbs. (0.23 kg) honey
- 6 AAU Tettnang hops (60 mins)
- (1.5 oz./43 g of 4% alpha acids)
- Danstar Nottingham dried ale yeast
- 0.75 cups corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Heat 2.5 gallons (9.5 L) of water to a boil, then stir in sorghum syrup. Return wort to a boil, then add hops and boil for 60 minutes. At the end of the boil, stir in honey with a sanitized spoon, then cool wort until sides of brewpot are cool to the touch. Transfer wort to a sanitized fermenter and top up with water to 5 gallons (19 L). Aerate wort and pitch yeast. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C). Bottle with corn sugar.
Overlook Amber Ale (Redrum Sorghum Beer)
5 gallons/19 L, partial mash; OG = 1.055 FG = 1.014; IBU = 33 SRM = 10+ ABV = 5.3%
- 5.0 lbs. (2.3 kg) white sorghum malt (base malt)
- 1.0 lbs. (0.45 kg) white sorghum malt (kilned/toasted malt)
- 4.0 lbs. (1.8 kg) BriesSweet White Sorghum Syrup 45 DE High Maltose
- 1 tsp amylase enzymes
- 7 AAU Centennial hops (60 mins)
- (0.58 oz./16 g of 12% alpha acids)
- 2.5 AAU Cascade hops (30 mins)
- (0.50 oz./14 g of 5% alpha acids)
- 0.50 oz. (14 g) Amarillo hops (0 mins)
- Fermentis Safale S-04 dried ale yeast
- 0.75 cups corn sugar (for priming)
Step By Step
Malt 6.0 lbs. (2.7 kg) of white sorghum. Toast 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) of this malt. Perform a triple decoction mash, then heat mash to 180 °F (82 °C) and stir in amylase enzymes. Collect wort, add syrup and boil wort for 60 minutes. Ferment at 70 °F (21 °C).