Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The New Shades of Gluten Free

There is some controversy in the world of gluten-free beer. Where in the past the only gluten-free breweries were those that used barley alternatives like sorghum and millet, several breweries now have begun using typical ingredients to create the beer while adding an enzyme to break down the binding properties of gluten. That, they tell you, makes the beer safe for the gluten-intolerant to enjoy.

Not being a scientist, I won't try to break down the scientific argument here. But after consuming both old-school gluten-free beers and this new version of what some would call gluten-free beverages in recent weeks, I can tell you there is a world of difference in the taste. And it's enough to make drinkers re-think their ideas of what "gluten-free" means.

To see this locally, one needs to go to Brewery Rickoli, a roughly 1-year-old Wheat Ridge beer maker that doesn't openly advertise itself as using the new gluten-breaking enzyme. This is important, because drinkers likely wouldn't look at the variety of beers brewer Rick Abitbol makes and think of them as a gluten-free lineup. There are numerous hop bombs, including a 13 percent ABV triple IPA that is deceptively easy-drinking. There is the Thrilla in Vanilla vanilla rye stout that, while coming off a little flat, is packed full of dark and sweet flavors. And the brewery whose motto is that it makes gluten-free beers "that don't suck" is making waves.

Then there is Omission IPA, a beer that Craft Brewers Alliance took national on Aug. 5. Made with the same enzyme as Brewery Rickoli uses, it's not likely to replace any hugely grassy or citrus IPAs in your rotation. But it has an ever-present hop feel (think of it like a strong pale ale) and, as CBA innovation brand manager Lorin Gelfand told me, it's a beer that you can take to a party and have both the gluten-tolerant and the gluten-intolerant enjoy.

But while these new styles of gluten-reducing beers may remind people less of the old sorghum-substitute gluten-free beers, there is concern they may not be gluten-reduced enough to protect people, especially those with Celiac Disease. Peter Archer, marketing manager at New Planet Beer of Boulder, noted to me that his is still the only gluten-free brewery in Colorado, according to federal designation. The enzyme that's becoming more popular has only earned gluten-free status when it comes to food, not beer, he noted. And he's worried that people can be misled.

And the truth is, you really can tell the difference in taste. New Planet's new Brown Ale, for example, hits you with a mouthful of sweet molasses, but as you run it over your taste buds, you can feel that plastic aftertaste that comes with a sorghum beer; it's a good effort to approximate the regular taste of beer, but one that won't make the gluten-tolerant forget its difference. And the company's Belgian Ale, similarly made with sorghum and brown rice extract, hits you even more with a mouthfeel of cellophane, unfortunately dwarfing the prototypical Belgian spice and yeast flavors in a way that was commented on by everyone in the Fearless Tasting Crew who sampled it. It's a shame, because I knew in talking to Archer how much the company - which is wildly successful - is looking to make a craft beer that appeals to everyone. But the palate doesn't lie.

So, are we entering a new era in gluten-free beer, or is there a new crop of gluten-reduced beers masquerading as a safe alternative for the gluten-intolerant? I don't know. But I can tell you as a beer drinker that there is a major gulf in taste between the two. And that gulf is likely to remain the difference between acceptance by a specific group of drinkers and by the general drinking population.

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