Tasting Notes: Gluten-Free Beer Shootout

A fair amount of people in this country drink gluten-free by necessity, and that’s not even counting those who do it by choice. But when you tinker with malt, one of the four main ingredients in beer and the one that activates the autoimmune response in those with celiac disease, does the resulting product still taste like beer?

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Henry Phillips

A fair amount of people in this country eat and drink gluten-free by necessity — the 1 in 105 people who have celiac disease, for instance, or the estimated 1 in 10 people who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity — and many more do so by choice. But even before an awareness of gluten intolerances was cool hit the medical mainstream, the prescient craft beer industry started producing gluten-free beer. Instead of glutinous malts, they used millet, rice, sorghum, buckwheat, tapioca, or special enzymes that denature the gluten proteins that trigger celiac’s autoimmune response.

But when you tinker with malt, one of the four main ingredients in beer (water, hops, malt, yeast) and the one that activates the autoimmune response in those with celiac disease, does the resulting product still taste like beer? And if so, how does it hold up against more traditional counterparts? To find out, we put ten gluten-free beers to a blind taste test. Our conclusion? A select few are good enough for anyone — celiac and non-celiac alike — to enjoy on a regular basis. Others give the category a bad name. They’re ranked below, 10th being the worst, 1st being the best, based on the average scores of our three reviewers.

[Ed. Note: According to a ruling made by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) on February 11, 2014, brewers that use enzymes to denature gluten proteins — Omission, Two Brothers, Brunehaut — cannot legally call their beer “gluten-free,” even if it contains gluten levels of less than 20 parts per million (ppm). While many of those with celiac disease drink beers under 20ppm without a problem, the autoimmune response activates at different levels for different people, and these beers are more likely to trigger a response than others. If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor before drinking “gluten-free” beer.]

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New Planet Brown Ale, 6.0%

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Our readers know that we’re not in the business of disparaging brands. But when something’s bad — like, really, really bad — we feel obligated to mention it. This beer (beer-like substitute? Malt-flavored beverage?), which substitutes grains with sorghum and brown rice, won a 2013 Bronze Medal in the gluten-free beer category at the Great American Beer Festival, but we can’t see why. It tastes like bad red wine, and smells not unlike rotting meat.

Brunehaut Blonde Ale, 6.5%

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Not much better than New Planet Brown Ale is Brunehaut Blonde, which has a sour, nauseating smell and tastes like medicine. The only foreigner in the tournament, this relatively high-ABV beer — which uses de-glutenized barley — comes from Brunehaut, Belgium, a city with a brewing history of almost 1,000 years. In addition to the Blonde, Brunehaut makes several other gluten-free beers: Brunehaut Amber, Brunehaut Blanche and Brunehaut Triple, which, at 7.5% ABV, holds the distinction of being the highest ABV gluten-free beer that we’ve encountered. Perhaps those taste better, though after this selection, we’re not sure we want to try them.

Two Brothers Prairie Path, 5.1%

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We like Two Brothers, one of the few breweries on this list that makes many award-winning and well-regarded glutinous options in addition to their gluten-free options. We’re also impressed with their process: though they use a 100 percent malted barley grain bill in the Prairie Path, they introduce an enzyme into the brewing process that denatures the gluten proteins. According to reports done by an independent analytical lab, the final product contains gluten in quantities of less than 5ppm. Unfortunately, the Prairie Path isn’t as delicious as Two Brothers’ other beers. Though our reviewers found it far more drinkable than the beers that placed 9th and 10th, the fruity lager’s taste seems to end abruptly after the swallow, causing all three of our reviewers to note that it tasted “bland” or “dull”.

Dogfish Head Tweason’ale, 6.0%

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We respect Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head, for bringing his “off-centered” philosophy to the gluten-free market. Brewed with sorghum, strawberries and buckwheat honey, Tweason’ale fills a niche for those gluten-free drinkers looking for an alternative to the ordinary pale ale or lager. But though it’s made with noble intentions, the lack of a malt backbone to balance the fruit leaves it tasting a bit like a sugary strawberry soda.

Steadfast Golden Blonde Ale, 5.5%

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Based in Albany, this small gluten-free craft brewery began brewing in 2011 and shipped their first case in April 2012. Come fall, they make one of the few seasonally inspired gluten-free beer options, a Pumpkin Spice Ale. In their Golden Blonde Ale, which uses sorghum, honey, spices, hops and yeast, one gets a sweet, yeasty smell on the nose, and in the mouth, lots of lemon. It’s a taste that takes some getting used to, and though it gets better with every sip, the first sip left us with less-than-positive impressions.

Notable Omissions
Gluten wasn’t the only thing we left out of this shootout. Either because we couldn’t find them or because they’re no longer available, several popular gluten-free beers didn’t make the cut.

Epic Glutenator, 5.3% ABV
Instead of using a sorghum base, which often yields astringent beer, Epic uses light-bodied millet, brown rice, sweet potatoes and molasses to create a gluten-free beer with a sweet flavor and clean finish.
Epicbrewing.com

Bard’s Tale Dragon’s Gold, 4.3%
This American-style lager beer was, according to its creators, the world’s first sorghum craft beer. The flavor mimics many mass market light beers, though with a bit more of a floral quality.
Bardsbeer.com

Rock Bottom Nikki’s Honey Pale Ale, 4.5%
Winner of the 2012 Gold Medal for gluten-free beer at the Great American Beer Festival, Nikki’s Honey Pale Ale was made by Rock Bottom, a brewpub in Arlington, VA. Good luck trying to find it. The mythical gluten-free beer, which debuted as a brew-pub only offering, is no longer listed on Rock Bottom’s website.
Rockbottom.com

Green’s Discovery, 6% vol. units of alcohol (UK)
Crafted across the pond, Green’s offers a range of gluten-free beer that includes Discovery, a medium-bodied amber ale with subtle caramel and nut flavors.
Glutenfreebeers.co.uk

Lakefront New Grist, 5.1%
New Grist combines sorghum, rice, hops, water and yeast to form a pilsner-style “session ale” that tastes of malt and green apple.
Lakefrontbrewery.com

Ipswich Ale Celia Saison, 6.5%

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Celia Saison was originally brewed by Jon Kimmich (founder of the Alchemist Brewery) for his wife, who has celiac disease. The recipe was eventually (and legally) adopted by Ipswich Brewery, which now markets the beer under their own label. Though it doesn’t smell like much, the mix of sorghum, Belgian yeast, Curacao orange peels and celeia hops gives the beer a sweet, spicy quality.

Widmer Brothers Omission Lager, 4.6%

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Unlike many competitors, Widmer Brothers brews their Omission beers with gluten — pale and caramel 10 malts, to be specific. During the brewing process, they add an enzyme called Brewer’s Clarex that breaks the gluten protein chains. As a result, the beers are more likely to trigger a reaction than others; supposedly, they’re also more likely to taste like traditional beer. We found that to be true, with both the Lager and the Pale Ale scoring top marks. Of all the beers, this one tasted the most like a mainstream lager.

Harvester IPA No. 1, 5.8%

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The first dedicated gluten-free beer brewery, Harvester adds a Dogfish Head-like experimental approach to the world of gluten-free beer, producing a wild variety that includes Marionberry Pale, Apple IPA and Coffee Pale Ale. Their 60 IBU IPA No. 1 uses horizon, Willamette, Cascade and Meridian hops, as well as pale roasted chestnuts, gluten-free oats, and organic tapioca maltodextrin to produce a solid, low-carbonation IPA, with citrus on the nose and pleasant bitter hops taste that lasts long after the swallow.

Harvester IPA No. 2, 6.8% ABV

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Weighing in at 90 IBU and 6.8% ABV, this seasonal release from Harvester holds claim as the hoppiest gluten-free beer on the market thanks to a copious use of Newport and crystal hops. In one humble reviewer’s opinion, it should have taken top prize. Even among non-gluten-free options, this is a good beer, with anise and citrus on the nose and herbs and pine in the mouth. Like the No. 1 IPA, it has an enjoyable lingering bitterness. Unfortunately it’s not sold year-round.

Widmer Brothers Omission Pale Ale, 5.8%

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The highest rated of our 10-beer blind tasting is brewed with pale, caramel 10, dark Munich and carapils malts, as well as Cascade and citra hops, giving it a citrus nose and a refreshing blend of malt and hops in the mouth. It’s extremely drinkable, and our new go-to for an after-work light beer, gluten-free or not.

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