Breweries big and small go gluten-free

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

In Madison, as elsewhere, the craft beer movement is booming, and Trevor Easton is one more veteran homebrewer who’s decided to go commercial.

But Easton’s tiny Greenview Brewing, one of several located in the House of Brews facility on Madison’s east side, has one distinct difference from its competition. Bottling under the “Alt Brew” label, Greenview is the only area brewery — and one of only a few in the country — to exclusively brew gluten-free beer.

By definition, gluten-free beer is made from ingredients that do not contain glycoproteins — aka the offending gluten. Glycoproteins are found in barley, wheat and other cereals used to make bakery goods and beer. Gluten-free beer exchanges a malted barley base for other foundational ingredients like millet, rice or sorghum.

It’s largely health issues that have motivated the creation of gluten-free beer. The cereals used in traditional brewing can trigger symptoms for those who are merely gluten sensitive, as well as those who suffer from celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine. Left untreated, celiac disease also can lead to other autoimmune disorders, neurological conditions, short stature or intestinal cancers, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, and complete abstinence from gluten is the only known way to combat it.

That’s the reason veteran brewer Easton set up Greenview Brewing. His wife, Maureen, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2007, forcing him to cease his home operation. But in May, he started brewing gluten-free beer using his own one-barrel nano-brewery system, which he says is isolated from other House of Brews operations in order to avoid cross-contamination with gluten.

Easton currently distributes beers on a limited basis in 22-oz. “bombers” in Madison, Stoughton and Whitewater. Two brews currently on the market are his Hollywood Nights Blonde IPA and a more traditional-tasting Farmhouse Ale.

Other Wisconsin brewers also have experimented with gluten-free beer. Sprecher Brewing Co., based in Glendale, brews Mbege and Shakparo ales based on traditional West African beer recipes. 

Both brands, originally created for Milwaukee’s African World Festival, were created from a base of sorghum and millet, traditional beer ingredients in regions like West Africa where barley and wheat aren’t as abundant. The beers weren’t purposefully made to be gluten-free, but it’s a happy byproduct.

New Grist Pilsner Style Beer, brewed by Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, follows the rice-and-sorghum formula to remain gluten-free. Described as “a crisp, refreshing session ale” on Lakefront’s website, New Grist has won a half-dozen awards since its introduction in 2006. (See sidebar, page 26.)

One more Wisconsin entry into the category is Stevens Point Brewery’s JP A’Capella Gluten Free Pale Ale. But be advised, this sorghum-based ale has gotten seriously mixed reviews, so it might not be best as your first taste of gluten-free beer.

Here are other gluten-free beers of interest:

Estrella Daura, bottled in Barcelona, may be the best-known, most widely available gluten-free beer on the global market. It may also be the most critically decorated, winning top awards from the International Taste & Quality Institute in Brussels, the World Beer Championship, and the World’s Best Gluten-free Lager Award at The Beverage Tasting Institute’s World Beer Awards.

New Planet Gluten-free Beer, a brewery in Boulder, Colorado, offers a line of gluten-free craft brands, including pale, amber, blonde and brown ales, as well as a raspberry and Belgian ale. Fans laud the variety and heartiness of the lineup.

When U.K. entrepreneur Derek Green was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1988, he vowed he wouldn’t give up his beloved ale. But it took 16 years and a chance meeting with an eminent Belgian professor of brewing before he could come up with a gluten-free beer he liked. Not surprisingly, he named it Discovery, and it helped launch Green’s Gluten Free Beers. Today there are nine different varieties, but Discovery, an amber ale with subtle caramel and nut nuances, still plays a central role.

Epic Brewing Co. claims it has brewed “a gluten-free beer for everybody,” and that may be the best way to describe Glutenator. The Salt Lake City brewer has eschewed sorghum, the most common ingredient in gluten-free beer, for a blend of light-bodied millet, brown rice, sweet potatoes and molasses, along with plenty of American hops. Like most craft beers, it must be tasted to be understood and appreciated.

Sam Calagione, owner and beer wizard at Dogfish Head in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, decided gluten-free beer needn’t be just an experiment in grain. Utilizing a sorghum base like most brewers, he also added honey and strawberries, giving his Tweason’ale a unique profile. Think of it as almost a cider, but not quite.

Lakefront’s gluten-free redefines brewing parameters

Russ Klisch, co-owner of Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, believes in everyone’s right to enjoy a beer. And he knows a market niche when he sees one. 

So in 2006, when Klisch learned that a brewery worker’s family member had been diagnosed with celiac disease, it prompted him to explore possibilities for gluten-free beer. 

At the time, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau required beverages to contain at least 25 percent malted barley in order to be legally sold as “beer,” which prohibited anyone with celiac disease from imbibing in his brews. Lakefront could have produced a line of gluten-free alcoholic beverages (as did Bard’s Tale, a brewery in Minnesota), but Klisch decided instead to try and change the TTB policy.

He came up with a plan for a gluten-free beer and submitted it to the bureau, ultimately convincing TTB officials to create a new category, accommodating beer brewed without malted barley. Their entry in that category, New Grist, now accounts for about 25 percent of the brewery’s total production of nearly two dozen brands, according to Matt Krajnak, Lakefront’s communications director.

“New Grist is brewed with the intent of tasting like a pilsner,” Krajnak says. “It’s made with sorghum and rice, so the flavor profile is quite different from, say, our Klisch Pilsner. The high amount of fermentable sugars in the sorghum and rice extracts make it drier than Klisch Pilsner.

“New Grist also has a slight tanginess, or tartness, reminiscent of a cider, which, I think, is characteristic of malted sorghum. I’ve had other sorghum beers, like Green’s Quest Tripel, which is delicious, that have the same tanginess.”

New Grist earned a Gold Award for Experimental Beer at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival. Five years later, the beer earned a silver medal in the Gluten Free Beer category at the same event, a step that acknowledged a change in the law and indicated the increased appearance and appeal of gluten-free beers across the country.