Friday, 18 May 2018

Gluten-free beer tasting

To follow my blog on how gluten-free beers are made, I enlisted some selfless volunteers to help me taste several examples to see how they compared to standard beers. One was a coeliac who for several years has had little beer, apart from the occasional gluten-free light lager.

We started with a trio of barley-based beers. The first two say they use low-gluten barley and a brewing process that further minimises gluten, while the latter doesn't say how it's de-glutenised, which means it's probably Brewer's Clarex.

Bellfield Bohemian Pilsner: A golden beer with a very slight head and light aromas of dry hay, biscuit, a little sweetcorn – making it pretty close to style. The body did seem to me to be a little thin for a Czech-style Pils, but beyond that it is malty and dry-sweet, with light dry bitterness. It's a nice example of a lager, and was well liked by our coeliac taster.

Bellfield Lawless Village IPA: It's orange-brown and toasty, with touches of Seville orange and caramel, a note of grapefruit pith and a hint of lemon on the finish. Don't expect American hops or bitterness – this is a nice classic British-style IPA that you wouldn't know was gluten-free – and indeed, why should you?

Glebe Farm Wellington Bomber: Described as a Porter, it seemed more in the Brown Ale vein to me. It has aromas of toast, cocoa and a little cola, then the body was a little watery, with roasted malt, palate-drying cocoa, and a sweet, burnt sugar note. We found it a bit confused and thin; however, I suspect our bottle – bought from a farm shop – had suffered a bit of oxidation in storage.

We followed with a trio of non-barley beers, brewed instead from malted rice and other grains, including millet and quinoa. All are from Autumn Ales, and like the Bellfield beers were kindly donated by the brewer.

Alt Brew No.01: Labelled as a Bavarian-style Pilsner, it's light-bodied – certainly a lot lighter than the average Eurolager, and maybe even a bit thin. I don't think it's bitter enough for Bavarian Pils, but it went down well with the other tasters, who agreed it made a nice summer drink.

Alt Brew No.02: A Golden Ale, it pours a bright amber-brown with a lasting head. The nose is hoppy-fresh with a hint of citrus. Then there's crisp bitterness and lightly sweet, with a toasted edge and a slight astringency. This a nice zesty beer, and was the only one liked by all our tasters.

Alt Brew No.03: Brewing a dark and roasty Stout without barley is a challenge, but Autumn has come pretty close with this dark brown brew. It's a little thin compared to many other Stouts, and was too 'burnt' for some of our tasters, but for dark beer fans there's a light milky sweetness in the midbody, plus notes of bitter chocolate before an ashy-burnt finish.

Overall, even though these are such different beer styles, I think some conclusions are fair. As a regular drinker of all sorts, my favourite was the excellent Lawless IPA, while the Pilsners seemed not quite authentic. However, the latter were popular with the tasters who hadn't drunk much ale in recent years, but who still appreciated something better than Eurolager.

The one we all agreed on liking was the Alt Brew No.02. Yes, it's that classic golden ale crossover beer – well put together, and appealing to ale and lager drinkers alike.

Ultimately though, the most amazing thing is that while Autumn Brewing and Bellfield Brewery are special, in that they brew only gluten-free beer and don't rely on Clarex, this was just a sample of what's available now in terms of gluten-free beer. So whether you're a super-sensitive coeliac or simply have an intuition you're gluten-intolerant, at least now you can enjoy a decent beer. Cheers to that!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The brewers going gluten-free for health and profit*

There's been specialist gluten-free beers for a while now, often using the same gluten-free grains as the traditional sorghum and millet beers of Africa. However, few have managed to really replicate the aroma and flavour of beers made from malt, or indeed the range of beers possible with malt – light lagers were just about the only thing possible. Until relatively recently, that is.

Why does it matter? While gluten-free and wheat-free are lifestyle choices for some people these days, for those who have coeliac disease, gluten can genuinely and seriously damage your health.  So when you're diagnosed as coeliac, as a close relative of mine was, you need to give up gluten – and it's in an amazing number of things these days, one of them of course being beer.

Yes, there's the specialist free-from brands such as Greens, as well as obvious gluten-free (g/f) alternatives such as cider and wine, but it's not the same. So over the last three years or so I've been intrigued to see more regular breweries adding g/f beers – often as versions of their regular beers, such as Greene King's g/f IPA and Old Speckled Hen, and Damm's Daura range – and so I set out to learn more.

The first thing I learnt about was Brewer's Clarex – not to be confused with the many other Clarexes out there, which range from assorted pills to a form of acrylic glass. Brewer's Clarex is an enzyme that was originally developed to stabilise beer faster, but it was subsequently discovered that it also has a de-glutenising effect. It doesn't remove it all, but beer treated with it will typically have well below 20 parts-per-million (ppm) of gluten, which means you can legally call it gluten-free (once it has been lab-tested as such, of course), and it should be safe for all but the most sensitive of coeliacs.

This is how the majority of the new wave of g/f beers are made, and it means they taste little or no different from beer that hasn't been Clarexed. Indeed, the widespread use of Brewer's Clarex simply as a stabiliser also means there will be beers out there that are g/f for practical purposes but are not labelled or accredited as such, typically because the brewers don’t want the additional cost of testing, or can't guarantee every single batch will be below 20ppm. So if you were to taste-test g/f beer versus non-g/f beer, you could find you're accidentally comparing like with like!

However, even this process is not good enough for every coeliac. In addition, some, such as the coeliac founders of Edinburgh's Bellfield Brewery, argue that the by-products of de-glutenisation can themselves be harmful. So instead of enzymes, they use very-low-gluten barley malt, along with g/f adjuncts such as maize, in a brewing process that they say also minimises gluten.

I met Bellfield back in February at Craft Beer Rising, where beer seller Robert Shepherd said that the result of all this is beers that routinely test below 10ppm, which counts as 'gluten-absent'. (This level is not hard to find – Daura claims 3ppm, for example – but it’s unusual in a barley beer that's not been enzyme-treated.)

But what of the other g/f grains used in European-style brewing, such as maize and rice? Although they have been used for many years, they have not had great reputations – their main purpose is to add fermentables without adding body, making a 'thinner' beer, hence the beer-geek distaste for American Bud as "thin, tasteless rice beer".

It turns out though that does not have to be the case. When I met Peter Briggs (left) of Autumn Brewing at the PubShowUK earlier this year, he introduced me to a stout, a lager and an amber ale which are gluten-absent but still taste like all-malt beers – because they are malt beer. It's just not barley malt.

He uses malted rice, millet and quinoa (!), sourced from specialist maltsters in the US. Malting, where the grain is germinated then kiln-dried before it grows too much, is a key process in making beer. Not only does germination help convert the starch in the grain into fermentable sugars, but both it and the subsequent kilning also alter its flavour and colour. Indeed, the degree of kilning used can produce a broad range of drastically different results, from light lager malts to the dark roasted malts that give stouts and porters their colour and flavour. Peter reckons Autumn is (or was – who knows!) the first brewer in Europe to import these malts and brew with them.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this – and the most positive thing to come out of the g/f lifestyle movement – is that it's boosted the availability of g/f beer for everyone, including the coeliacs who need it most keenly. Bellfield's Robert Shepherd even spun it into a business benefit for the g/f brewer: "Most beers can only reach around 90% of the market – there's people who can't drink them. We're both gluten-free and vegan, so we can reach 100%."

Coming up next: the coeliac's gluten-free taste test

*Profit? Maybe – I hope so, anyway. This is a tough market to operate in, because it normally involves extra production & testing costs and therefore higher prices, which makes it harder to also reach the mainstream buyer.