Gluten Free Beer. To a celiac, those refreshing words are almost never uttered in the same sentence. Except maybe, “I wish I had a gluten free beer!” Until around 2006, there was little to no chance this wish would come true.
It seems that as long as man has been farming cereal grains, we’ve been making beer from surplus grains like barley. In fact, archaeologists believe that beer was integral to the early formation of complex civilizations, founded on the importance of feasting ceremonies that brought groups together for political, social, trading and support reasons.
Throughout history, barley has been the primary brewing grain of choice, dating back to at least 3400 B.C.; in fact the oldest food quality regulation still used in the 21st century was based entirely on the limitation of ingredients used in the brewing of beer. This Bavarian law restricted beer makers to using only barley, hops and water – a tradition still upheld by the majority of German breweries and others around the world. Even in the United States, a “malt beverage” has been defined for regulatory purposes as being made from barley, water and hops, with or without other ingredients for flavor.
So for celiacs and others avoiding gluten-containing grains like barley, enjoying beer was a faint, happy memory until quite recently. Once breweries did get into the business of brewing beers for the gluten-free community, two types of non-traditional beers emerged: naturally gluten-free beers made from gluten-free grains and “gluten-reduced,” “low gluten,” or “crafted to remove gluten” beers made from barley and other gluten-containing grains.
In the U.S., this second kind of beer is not allowed to be labeled as “gluten-free”, although local state laws may differ when the beers do not cross state lines. This distinction is important because like other barley beers, these “gluten-reduced” beers remain under the regulatory umbrella of the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), while naturally gluten-free beers are within the FDA’s (Food and Drug Administration) labeling jurisdiction.
Consistent with the new FDA regulations, TTB will continue to consider “gluten-free” label claims for alcohol beverages that are made from gluten-containing grains to be misleading to consumers who are seeking to avoid the consumption of gluten for health reasons. However, products made from gluten-containing grains may be labeled with a statement that the product was “Processed,” “Treated,” or “Crafted” to remove gluten, if that claim is made together with a qualifying statement that warns the consumer that the gluten content of the product cannot be determined and that the product may contain gluten.
Experts caution against celiacs and those with gluten sensitivity drinking these beers, since there is no scientifically accepted test to determine whether such fermented beverages are truly gluten free enough to be safe. Thus, while these beers cannot be labeled “gluten-free,” you may still find them erroneously shelved in the gluten-free beer section or on a gluten-free beer menu, so use caution.
If you are confused about which beers are naturally gluten-free and which are gluten-reduced, choose only beers with a nutrition label, since that indicates it is regulated by the FDA and therefore, does not contain barley. (For more information listen to the podcast interview with GFCO regarding their study).
Fortunately for all of us living without gluten, some brew masters have found amazingly creative ways to create safe beers we can all enjoy, and have embraced available gluten-free ingredients not as limitations, but as opportunities.
One such brewery is Holidaily Brewing Company in Golden, Colorado. (For many others, check out my gluten free beer Tasting Notes article linked here).