Gluten-Free Beers Are Getting Really Damn Good—Debilitating Stomach Pain Not Included

Christine Flammia
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Esquire

There is no graceful way to go from always drinking Bud Light to saying, “Actually, my stomach might self-destruct if I touch that.” I tried refusing drinks and avoiding bars all together. Those options sucked. And it was impossible to be subtle, especially with friends like mine, who are loving and aggressive, and who required an explanation of why, how, for what purpose, and at what cost.

So, that’s what they got: “I know I have been drinking Bud Lights for a long time. I have also been fearful of pooping myself for a long time. Only, I didn’t tell you that, because why would I ever tell you that? What’s more, I used to feel like that constantly. I didn’t know why. Now I know why. Turns out, it’s the Bud Light.”

I had really, really wanted to believe that a gluten intolerance was something white girls like me made up to sound important. It wasn’t that they couldn’t “have gluten,” it was that they couldn’t have the extra calories and belly bloat. They steered clear of bread, not because they didn’t want it, but because health. Gluten, the binding protein of the world’s best carbs, in its avoidance became the binding force of a privileged, health-conscious community. I believed non-celiac, gluten-intolerant people were disillusioned.

And then I became one.

Turns out, your doctor can very much diagnose you with a non-celiac gluten intolerance. Mine did in 2016, after 23 years of gastrointestinal turmoil, and assigned me an elimination diet for a complete and total lifestyle upheaval. The dietary culprits: dairy, soy, and very sadly, gluten.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

By far the hardest part about curbing my health issue was (and remains) the social impact. I don’t think I’m annoying because I don't eat pizza when it’s late and we’re starving. I think I’m much happier—and nicer to be around—when I’m not hiding the stabbing stomach pains. No, it's the assimilation into casual social situations: going to a party, getting drinks at a bar, going on a date. Suddenly, I’m the one who can’t hang. The most casual of settings are always the most gutting: “Hey, I grabbed you a beer.” It is painful in its own way to feel high maintenance. And also, I really want the damn beer.

But over the past few years, as gluten-free labeling has become less of a trend and more of a widely understood health decision, the beer industry has started making gluten-free beers that look, smell, and taste like the real thing. There are beers made with millet and buckwheat, some made with rice and quinoa, and others that use a chemical compound to shatter gluten proteins into bits. They aren’t quite everywhere yet—I still have to check grocery store inventory and drink menus ahead of time—but they exist, and they are getting good.

The Contenders: Gluten-Free and Gluten-Removed Beers

When you go from loving beer to cutting it out completely to discovering there is a gluten-free option available, you might not care what style, brew method, or flavor it is. At least, speaking from experience. The first few times I saw gluten-free beer available, I grabbed it. But the gluten-conscious beer market is growing, even if my local grocery store sells only one kind that I will buy simply because it is there. (I usually have luck finding more in stock at Whole Foods, because of course gluten-free beers are in stock at Whole Foods.)

There are two main types of beers in this market: One is beer that is made, from the start, with ingredients that do not contain gluten. Some common non-gluten, beer-making grains include rice, sorghum, buckwheat, and millet. The second type is gluten-removed beer. This is when beer is made from its standard ingredients, like wheat, barley, or rye, and the gluten is later taken out.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Beers that are gluten-free from the start are easier to understand. Karen Hertz, founder of Holidaily Brewing Company, a completely gluten-free facility in Colorado, found a blend of millet and buckwheat to be the most versatile. “We looked for as much of a familiar mouthfeel and texture as we could get,” she says. “We paid attention to the efficiency of the grain—how much sugar can we get out of it?—and made sure the end product has the body we’re used to.” Her brewery uses that blend to make a range of styles, including ales, IPAs, and stouts.

And sure, there is a bit of weirdness in beers crafted from something that isn’t wheat. Personally, I notice it in the weight: Gluten-free beers tend to be a little lighter—nothing like a Guinness. They don’t feel or taste like a completely unknown drink, though. Gluten free is just its own style of beer, the way an ale is different from a lager. You might enjoy it, even prefer it, or you might not like it at all.

Gluten-Removed Is More Complicated Than Gluten-Free

Gluten-removed beers are more familiar in how they taste and feel, because they are made with wheat or barley. But the fermentation process—and the marketing—is more complicated. Portland-based Omission Brewing is one such example. Omission beers are made with the standard ingredients: barley malt, hops, water, and yeast. The difference? When the product goes into fermentation, an enzyme called Brewers Clarex goes in with it.

“Beer is just going to taste like what it’s made out of,” says Omission brewmaster Joe Casey. “Using Clarex allowed brewers to use malted barley to make the [gluten-removed] beer in any kind of beer style, so we could get the traditional beer flavor.”

Brewers Clarex—whose biggest market is at-home brewers—was actually made to reduce chill haze and improve clarity in beer by breaking down the proteins that make shelf-stabilized beer look grungy over time. “Two things brewers get into is the foam and the clarity,” says Chris White, founder of White Labs, which produces Brewers Clarex. “We wanted something that helped brewers remove the haze. Turns out, it also breaks the chemical bonds from within the gluten protein.” White describes this as a process of “chopping up” the gluten protein, getting it into pieces so small that they no longer produce a gluten response in those sensitive to it.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

But this is where it gets complicated: The FDA only allows products that are gluten free from the start, like Holidaily’s millet-and-buckwheat brews, to be officially labeled as “gluten free.” If a product has ever contained gluten—like Omission's beers—it doesn’t get that FDA stamp of approval, though if it has fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten, it can be labeled to indicate gluten has been removed. There is some confusion here, partly because research shows food and drinks containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten are as good as gluten free. According to law, crafted-to-reduce-gluten beers cannot have a gluten-free sticker. According to science, most people with gluten sensitivities (even those with celiac disease) ought to be fine drinking them.

For someone who has an intolerance and not an immune response (yours truly), the trace amounts are usually nothing to worry about. But to ease concerns of those adhering to absolute avoidance, Omission maintains a transparent testing page on its website where you can look up a product's gluten levels. Its internal standard is even stricter than the FDA’s: undetectable. Other breweries have this information accessible, too, like Stone Brewing. New Belgium doesn’t have the testing as readily available, but its internal standard for a gluten-reduced beer is 10 parts per million, which is still stricter than the FDA’s.

“We want people to feel comfortable drinking the beer,” says Casey. “We can say, ‘Trust us, it’s fine.’ But giving consumers the results without telling them how we get there only gets you so far. Testing, and educating people about the testing, has been a huge piece of the project.”

Ultimately, neither the gluten-removed brewers nor the Brewers Clarex makers are concerned about the official gluten-free labeling.

“Beer is not, and shouldn't be, in the health business,” says White. Smacking a gluten-free label on something can make it easily misconstrued as a healthier option. That is not the point. The point is that the bottle contains beer that people who can’t have gluten can drink happily.

The gluten-free and gluten-removed beers I have tried so far—a few ales, one stout, and a handful of lagers—have been an absolute delight. I had been avoiding all talks of beer for so long that anything resembling my old pal was welcome. I have suffered no Bud Light-like reactions to either. And although I still have to do research before setting out to find beer, it’s becoming less like chasing after a gluten-free mirage and more like a scavenger hunt. Tough work but big reward. I can even order it at some bars, like any person who can hang might! I am happy, my stomach is calm, and I can finally say, out loud, that for the love of god, no, I do not want cider instead.

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