In its basic form, beer is made from water, yeast, hops and malted barley. And malted barley naturally contains gluten – a family of proteins which help foods maintain their shape.
Approximately 1% of the UK’s population suffer from Coeliac disease – a serious autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten. Another 6% report an allergy or intolerance to gluten. So does this mean that they are denied the pleasure of good beer?
Thankfully not. Malted barley and wheat are used in brewing to provide the sugars that the yeast feeds on to produce alcohol, but they are not the only cereals which can be malted. While other common brewing adjuncts rye and oats do contain gluten, there are alternatives including sorghum, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, rice and maize which do not.
Manchester based Green’s launched what they claim was the UK’s first naturally gluten free beer, Discovery Ale, in May 2004 (although the beer itself is brewed in Belgium). The beer was the result of years of research by gluten intolerant founder Derek Green, eventually teaming up with a Belgian professor who had a gluten intolerant daughter. Made with a combination of buckwheat, millet, sorghum, hops and brown rice, Discovery was followed by a naturally gluten free India Pale Ale and a dry hopped lager which are exported around the world.
The difficulty for those brewing with alternative grains is that as well as providing sugars, barley and other gluten containing cereals also impart much of the flavours and body associated with modern beers. Sorghum can tend to add too much sweetness to a beer and attempts to compensate for barley and rye flavours often lead to an unbalanced beer. Therefore, brewers like Greens need to work harder to match the flavour of traditional beer.
However, brewing with alternative grains is not the only way to produce ‘gluten free’ beers. In the UK and Europe, for a food stuff to be labelled ‘Gluten Free’ it must contain less than 20 parts per million (20ppm) of gluten. To take advantage of this, the brewing industry has developed special enzymes which break down the gluten proteins during fermentation of the beer. These have allowed brewers to produce beers using traditional ingredients and methods, but which contain extremely low levels of gluten in the finished product.
One such commonly used additive is ‘Brewers Clarex’ also known as ‘Clarity’, which is added to chilled wort at the start of fermentation. Clarex was originally developed to remove proteins from beer that could cause ‘chill haze’ and help brewers produce clearer beer. It was already widely in use before it was discovered that it also had the effect of breaking down the structure of gluten.
Pioneers in this new technique included Green’s, along with Yorkshire’s Wold Top and Hambleton Ales and Cumbrian brewery Stringers. They have since been joined by a whole host of brewers across the country, some who have added one or two gluten free beers in their range, others whose entire production is gluten-free.
One local brewery in the latter category is Salford’s First Chop who have a full range of gluten free beer available in cans, bottles, kegs and cask. The proudly boast that all beers are tested to show a gluten content less than 5ppm. All their beers are also suitable for vegetarians.
Brightside Brewery, based in Radcliffe, use Clarex on all their beers which go into bottle, can and kegs (including sub-brand Wildside). Sales director Carley Friedrich explained to Beer Buzz that in order to be able to label their beers as gluten free, a sample of each brew has to be sent to an independent laboratory for testing. They must pay for this test and wait four days for the results to come back before they can release each batch. Thankfully, they’ve never had a brew fail the test.
Carley told Beer Buzz that Brightside saw the introduction of gluten free beers as a sales opportunity having noticed an increasing interest in gluten free products. Some 8.5 million people in the UK are now believed to be following a gluten free or gluten reduced lifestyle, the majority by choice rather than on medical grounds so it was a timely move on Brightside’s part.
Another local brewer who has made all production gluten free is Green Mill, based at the Harewood Arms pub in Broadbottom, Tameside. Brewer Mat Wild told Beer Buzz that they brewed their first GF beer two years ago when a gluten intolerant customer at the pub made them realise there are plenty of ale lovers out there who were being denied a choice of ales. Their full range of beers has been Gluten Free since early 2018.
Other entrants into the gluten free market include Magic Rock’s Fantasma – a juicy 6.5% IPA available in can and keg and Origin, a 5.7% IPA from Leeds’ Northern Monk.
Processing beers to remove gluten isn’t the answer for everyone though. Although 20ppm is accepted as a safe level for most gluten intolerant people, some coeliacs are sensitive to the small levels of gluten in such beers. In UK and European legislation, no distinction is made between products which have been made without any gluten containing ingredients and those which have been processed to remove or reduce gluten – as long as they have <20ppm they can be labelled Gluten Free.
However, this is not the case in the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. In the USA only beers made from gluten free ingredients can be labelled ‘gluten free’. Beers processed to remove gluten can only be labelled ‘gluten removed’ or ‘gluten reduced’. The US market also recognises “dedicated gluten free beer’ – this is beer made in a brewery which only produces gluten free beer and where there is therefore no risk of cross contamination.
Campaigners in the UK argue that the current rules in the UK fail those whose conditions requires them to avoid all trace of gluten, meaning they can’t rely on labelling to find naturally gluten free beers. There are also those that claim to industry standard test for gluten in beers (known as the R5 Competitive ELISA test – the latter an acronym for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) can show beers as gluten free which still contain the antigens which celiacs respond to.
The result of these concerns is a growing call from more naturally gluten free products. One relatively recent addition to the choice available is Steel Cut, a 4.5% naturally gluten free golden ale made with oats, buckwheat, maize and sorghum by Suffolk’s Burnt Mill brewery. It was developed after head brewer Sophie de Ronde discovered that she is gluten intolerant.
Science is also seeking to give yet another option for sufferers with the development of gluten free barleys. Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has developed a barley called Kebari™ which has 10,000 less gluten than regular barley – around 5ppm. Edinburgh’s Bellfield Brewery has been running trials using the barley since 2016.
The internet is a great source of information for Coeliacs and other gluten intolerance drinkers. There is a support group on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/Beers4Coeliacs
Charity Coeliac UK offers a food and drink directory to members listing gluten free beers on their website https://www.coeliac.org.uk