Yes, Gluten-Free Beer Exists. Really. Beer without barley offers celiac sufferers a way to swill. If they can stand the taste.

Celiac Cutback: Barse hopes there will be more gluten-free beer options.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

“The color’s about right,” Mike Dolan says, regarding the coffee-brown column of Green’s Discovery in front of him. That’s the best compliment he can muster about the anemic amber ale, the only gluten-free beer in stock at The Black Squirrel on a quiet Monday evening. As co-founder of both the local blog dcbeer.com and the local club DC Homebrewers, he’s had better. Much better. But not since January, when he learned that he suffered from “gluten intolerance”—and that beer was part of the reason he’d been waking up to an upset stomach every morning for as long as he could remember.

“Getting up sick every day was just par for the course,” Dolan says. There is no way to definitively “prove” gluten intolerance, and it has only begun to be diagnosed in the past few years with new genetic and blood tests. Awareness of the disorder was virtually nil when Dolan, now 29, was growing up. He knew certain foods, like spaghetti, made him ill, so he didn’t eat them often. He just thought he had a sensitive stomach, and he endured it. “You don’t really know what ‘normal’ is,” he says.

Gluten intolerance isn’t so different from other food intolerances, such as lactose. It means that the body reacts aversely to the wheat protein found in everything from pasta to soy sauce to meat tenderizer. It’s also in barley, which means most beer is off the menu. Things could be worse: Some 3 million Americans that suffer from celiac disease, which means ingesting gluten can permanently damage their intestinal lining. But considering that Dolan is one of the city’s highest-profile beer lovers, the diagnosis remains pretty lousy: You might as well take up wine.

Dolan and I sip our beers again. Green’s Discovery has the vague caramel taste of Newcastle, but with an odd health-food bitterness that comes from recipe’s gluten-free stand-ins for barley: millet, buckwheat, rice, and sorghum. Where there should be the pleasant bite of hops, the beer smacks with the stale edge of gas-station coffee.

The off-flavors of these alternative grains are just one of the obstacles working against gluten-free beer. There’s also their exorbitant price tags: a half-liter of Green’s, which is imported from Belgium, costs $15 at a bar and $6 in stores. American six-packs such as New Grist and Bard’s retail for $9 or $10. That price isn’t so different from conventional craft brews. The taste, on the other hand, is altogether different. And not in a good way.

Gluten-free breweries are saddled with all kinds of extra costs. For starters, they require dedicated equipment. No amount of sterilization is enough to ensure against cross-contamination. (To give you an idea of how gluten-sensitive someone can be, Dolan says he’ll get sick if he eats a burger that’s been removed from a bun.) There’s also low demand: Gluten-free beer is the worst seller at The Black Squirrel, an Adams Morgan establishment known for its prodigious menu of niche beers. The bar is able to move just two or three bottles a week.

This smaller scale drives up ingredient prices, too. Though he’s downsized his involvement in dcbeer.com and DC Homebrewers since going cold-gluten, Dolan still works at myLHBS (“My Local Home Brew Shop”) in Falls Church, a dangerous job for someone with his condition: He says has to run to the sink whenever he drips malt syrup or gets a dusting of malt powder on his hands. The store doesn’t sell gluten-free supplies because their wholesalers only carry sorghum syrup in unwieldy sizes. Whereas ordinary malt syrup comes in 4-pound containers, the sorghum jugs weigh 60 pounds, enough to make 50 gallons of beer.

At ChurchKey, whose 500-bottle menu offers a few more gluten-free options, Alex Barse steers me away from basic, yellow gluten-free beer, such as New Grist—and once again toward Green’s.

Like Dolan, Barse never meant to become a gluten-free beer expert. She started in the beer industry at age 21, waiting tables at a Colorado Springs brewpub called Trinity while studying sociology at Colorado College. Before long, she was bartending at the tap room at Boulder’s Avery Brewing Co., one of the country’s most prominent craft breweries. The first woman to work at the brewery other than Adam Avery’s sister, she drew loyal customers, a group that evolved into a weekly women’s happy hour called “Sisterhood of the Hop.”

“I got a following,” she says. “I look underage, and I was the only girl in the brewery.”

When Barse was diagnosed with celiac disease in October 2009, it meant more than switching to bland beer. She also had to leave her job. After eight months at Avery, she had just been promoted to the company’s plum sales position, the rep for the entire state of Colorado. “I was completely devastated,” she says. “This was my life.”

Barse tried to keep it a secret. Against her better logic, she abstained from all gluten except beer for three weeks. It was an improvement over her past diet—on top of all the beer, she’d also been carbo-loading while training for a triathlon—but she stayed sick. “The whole time I was at Avery I thought I was just really hungover. It was kind of ‘beer for breakfast’ over there...I would go into work and think, ‘God I feel like shit.’ But everybody felt like shit.”

When she came clean to her boss, they agreed the job was over. A sales rep has to taste beer with clients, a duty she could no longer perform. Her co-workers at the brewery, her “19 older brothers,” chipped in for a going-away gift of wine and gluten-free six-packs, and Barse packed up to return to her hometown of D.C.

At ChurchKey, Barse and I share bottles of Endeavour and Quest, Green’s gluten-free takes on the Belgian dubbel and tripel styles. Both are rough and alcoholic. Forced to choose, she goes for the Quest, a golden ale with a raw booziness and sweet flavors you’d expect from a vodka-and-Sprite. I wrestle with my brown, malty Endeavour, trying to enjoy its notes of dates, cardboard, and boxed red wine. After 15 minutes of straight-faced posturing, we push the glasses aside and order a round of English draft ciders.

“I don’t think anyone’s perfected gluten-free beer,” she says as the waiter removes our unwanted ales. “They’re all really the same. No one’s dry-hopping it, no one’s aging them in barrels.”

Barse, like Dolan and other erstwhile beer nerds, hopes that gluten-free options will improve as the market expands and breweries keep experimenting. Grains such as sorghum and buckwheat present new challenges for brewers, but their off-flavors can be harnessed for good. For example, one quinoa homebrew I tasted mimicked the pleasant pucker of sourdough, and Rogue has harnessed buckwheat to make Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale, a dark, nutty (but not gluten-free) beer that could replace the bass notes of soy sauce on a sashimi plate.

Barse is still close with her beer family at Avery. At last year’s Savor beer festival, she helped them pour samples while catching up on news of their new canning line. She considered making an exception and indulging at the beer fest, but she’s decided to hold out for a special occasion—say, a trip to Belgium—before drowning herself in good beer, indigestion be damned.

“Oh my God, I’d have to drink the beer if I was in Belgium,” Barse says. “I’d just bring a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and camp out in the hotel for the rest of the week.”

Our Readers Say

Dudes, you guys totally forgot Redbridge and Bard's (my new fave). New Grist sucks. Green's is OK, but so expensive!

Don't forget South African fruit mash beer, either. Delicious, AND it messes you up.
Thanks, Mr. Shtuhl, for the much-needed public exposure on the scant beer options available for celiac sufferers and those with a gluten intolerance. (I, for one, always ask for gluten-free beer at pubs, even if I know they don't stock it -- my little PR campaign.) But your piece is a little misleading on a couple of points:

1. Green's may not meet the standards of a beer snob, but believe me, *it is the best thing we've got*, and quite good, I think. (My normal-beer-drinking friends agree, and I must admit that your scoffing at it is *a little* offensive.) Your article suggests that it is in roughly the same category as Redbridge or New Grist, but it is, in fact, much, much better, in a gluten-free beer league of its own.
2. I'm skeptical of the $15 on-sale price for Green's. I got it for $9.50 at a bar in midtown Manhattan. Someone at Churchkey assured me that they applied the standard markup for Green's, and maybe that's true, but maybe it should be less, at least as a little charity to the poor celiacs out there.
3. The other beers you mention -- Bard's included -- are not great, but thoroughly drinkable, and my friends mistakenly drink my GF beer all the time and don't notice the difference.

Still, I appreciate the article, your condemnation of my entire universe of beer notwithstanding.
Great article, Orr.
I never liked beer pre-diagnosis, and am not a huge fan of the g/f option, but do not consider myself a good gauge for tasting. But I will say I am SO delighted that ballparks/sports arenas/public entertainment venues that sell beer have begun carrying g/f beer options. It is SUCH a pleasure to have a beer at a ballpark or restaurant and feel NORMAL about it. So far, I've had Greens, Redbridge, Bards, New Grist. I'm always impressed when they don't jack up the prices as well. More options are always welcome!
I completely disagree with your assessment of gluten-free beers. The first I ever tried was Bard's, and, I assure you, it was delicious, especially when you factor in the reality of having been forced to do without beer for over 8 years.

My second, and favorite, is Anheuser-Busch's Redbridge, which my beer-loving boyfriend is not too proud to drink. It is more hoppy and less ale-y than Bard's, but they're both beyond decent.

I haven't tried Green's or New Grist, but Bard's and Redbridge are amber oases in a Celiac's beer desert.

Bard's was the first gluten-free beer on the market and is the only one that malts the sorghum in its recipe for traditional beer flavor and aroma. Our celiac founders were craft beer enthusiasts and avid home brewers that were diagnosed later in life with celiac disease. They did not want to give up beer so they developed a craft beer that everyone can enjoy - gluten-intolerant or not. Give us a try. Bard's is in forty-two State and will be in DC in the next month or so.

Glad to hear we're Olivia's fave.
@Brian from Bard's: You *malt* the sorghum? As in barley malt? As in not at all gluten free? I hope you are using the word malt in another context... because barley contains gluten. And is thus forbidden to Celiacs everywhere.
@Ellen: Malting the Sorghum is letting it begin to germinate then exposing it to high temperatures. It's the same process as malting barley. Check a dictionary or any homebrew book or wikipedia.
J. - I am happy Green's exists, I just know I've had better beers. 'All we've got' is hardly a standard we should be using to rate beers at this point. Whether Green's is actually better than New Grist, Bards or Redbridge is up for debate. Brewed in Belgium does not a good beer make. I prefer the Redbridge actually over Green's, which is heresy for a craft beer guy to actually say he likes a Bud product, but I'm gluten intolerant-it's all I got. The purpose of the article was to challenge the industry to make more and interesting gluten-free beers. Why can't people living gluten-free have an IPA. The growth of the craft beer industry has been awesome these last few years, and since I've had to sit by and watch it without drinking it, I'd love to not settle and see some good brewers make some good gluten free beers! Cheers Orr for writing this, I am glad I got to be a part of it.

Brian from Bard's- You are exactly the person I hoped would read this article! Please make an IPA (hops and sorghum? it's a given!) and a Stout so I can drink normally again. I will found my own distribution company if that's what it takes to get the beer in DC. Let's do it.
Thanks for the article on GF beer in DC. Redbridge suits me just fine. And you can get it at local grocery stores too. Seems like a simple thing for bars to stock a case of Redbridge, it's not hard to find. There is cider as an alternative though.
There's a gluten-free beer that you missed entirely, and it's too bad because it is the best-tasting one I have run across so far: St. Peter's Sorgham (sic) Beer from England.

It passes as a decent English pale ale and is the only gluten-free beer that I -- who doesn't have the problem (knock on wood) -- would drink wihtout reservation.

Give it a try!
Thanks so much for doing this story. Those of us with celiac really appreciate it.
There is no way to definitively “prove” gluten intolerance,

________

Yes, there is. Gluten intolerance is Celiac disease. First you get the blood tests, the celiac panel. Next if that proves positive (high reading of antibodies) you get the small intestine biopsy.

What the hell are yall talking about, no way to definitively prove 'gluten intolerance?'
I am on a gluten free diet and had Redbridge beer when we vacationed on Ocracoke Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina. It was delicious! Wish I knew where to buy it!
You can get a very good gluten free beer here in Australia,its made by O'brien brewing in Melbourne Victoria, Its better than so called normal beer.
Regards Bryan
Good to hear about O'Brien's GF beer. I'll be trying that out on my next trip to Australia in the spring (ours, their fall). Last trip I had some from a U-Brew-It in Geelong. I hope they are still in business. Go Cats!
@Library Downtown, I have non celiac gluten intolerance- I do not test positive for celiac, yet if I eat gluten, or something contaminated with gluten I have an immediate and severe reaction. So there is a difference. People with non-celiac struggle with being recognized as having a real problem, because we can't "prove" it with tests.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...