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Wednesday, September 25, 2013
My neighbor Robb and I enjoy creating epicurean concoctions together. We frequently combine our talents and ingredients with delicious results. One night we were making a soup with an extensive list of ingredients. We typically consider recipes mere suggestions and add whatever ingredients we think would taste good. I added a splash of the craft brew I was drinking to the soup and proudly informed Robb that I had done so. "Well, Clara will not be able to eat it now!" he admonished.
Clara, Robb's daughter, is one of millions of Americans who suffer from celiac disease. The disease, which affects at least 1 percent of the population, is an auto immune irregularity, triggered by gluten, which causes white blood cells to attack the tiny, fingerlike projections in the small intestines known as villi. The villi are responsible for absorption of nutrients in food, and when they are destroyed by white blood cells, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation can follow.
Gluten is a protein peptide present in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. The vast majority of all beers in the marketplace use malted barley to provide fermentable sugar to the wort. Folks with celiac, who must adhere to a completely gluten-free diet, can't go near conventional beer. Robb told me they almost lost Clara at age 5 before they figured out she had celiac, when severe symptoms landed her in the hospital.
Because folks diagnosed with celiac should not be consigned to a life devoid of beer, some brewers have created gluten-free beers. Most brewers use sorghum, a genus of grass that grows a grain that can be used for animal feed or converted into molasses. The problem is that sorghum-based brews may not mimic malt-based beer in flavor.
Portland, Ore.-based Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. produces Omission brews using malted barley that has been treated with enzymes to remove all but an undetectable amount of gluten.
Bill Philips, owner of Mr. Bill's Wine Cellar on Brambleton Avenue, who also sells craft brews, told me that he has seen an increase in the sales of gluten-free beer, but they still account for a small percentage of his overall beer sales.
Philips noted that some folks have celiac disease while others feel that avoiding gluten is part of a healthier lifestyle. His beer buyer, Jordan Leet, has an interesting take on the situation: "A lot of people think they have celiac, but they really don't," he said . "They ate too much fast food or something and blame the resulting discomfort on gluten."
Leet told me some customers buy gluten-free beer by the case. He went on to say that some of the commercially produced gluten-free beers out there taste pretty awful, "Like somebody added a dead cat or something," he said. "Some folks seem to like the Omission beers because they taste so good."
Omission uses Eurofins laboratory services to test their beers for gluten. The lab's gluten content report can be looked up by going to their website, http://omissionbeer.com/test-results/, then entering the production date stamped on the bottle. The one I looked up, Omission Pale Ale, indicated a gluten content of less than 10 parts per million, and it had a disclaimer that the beer could contain gluten. I had to go to the archive of all test results to find the beer I tasted because there was no batch code stamped on the bottle next to the date. Omission cannot label their beer as gluten free because it contains barley, considered by the FDA as a gluten ingredient even though testing shows less than 10 PPM gluten. A proposed change to the regulation has not been enacted yet.
Spencer Dennis, the beer buyer for Sumdat Farm Market in downtown Roanoke, has added a small section of gluten-free beer to his highly organized beer selection. Dennis says there is a consistent demand for them. "I would buy more of them if I could find them," he said.
If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, all is not lost. There are a few gluten-free products out there for you. And the next time I add beer to soup I will select one that is gluten-free.
Tasting notes for gluten-free beer
*Prices are approximate and subject to variation
New Planet Pale Ale
Crafted from sorghum, brown rice and molasses, this brew exhibits an amber color and very little head, although it does have adequate carbonation. I could not detect much aroma, and there were grainy flavors with loads of hop bitterness. Because there was no malt flavor, the intense bitterness threw the "beer" out of balance. After trying this I realize that if malted barley did not exist, people would have quit drinking beer long ago. 6.4 percent alcohol by volume $2.50 /12 oz. bottle
Salt Lake City, Utah
Epic Brewing Co. crafts this beer with sweet potatoes, molasses, millet, brown rice and American hops, eschewing sorghum. This brew has a hazy golden color and very little head. The only detectable aromas are dishwater and vinegar. It tastes a lot like a sparkling mineral water but more astringent. Try it if you like, but I just couldn't finish a glass. 6.9 percent ABV $7/22 oz. bottle
Dogfish Head Tweason'ale
This creative brewer's appetite for unusual ingredients is evident here. The brew is based on sorghum with the addition of fresh strawberries and buckwheat honey. Displaying the copper hue of a new penny and a light head, aromas of strawberry jam waft from the glass. Strawberry and honey notes are evident on the palate, like biting into a fresh strawberry, and the finish is crisp. Try it with baked Brie with slivered almonds on top. 6 percent ABV $11/Four-pack
Brewed by Widmer Brothers, this light golden brew exhibits a slight haze. The brew has minimal head that dissipates quickly. Light malt aromas lead to a refreshing sparkling palate with malt and citrus notes. If you like light beer you would be able to drink this. Try it with a grilled cheese sandwich. 4.6 percent ABV $11.50/Six-pack
Omission Pale Ale
This brew has a light copper color and moderate head. Faint hop aromas are there, "as if the wind were blowing past someone drinking a beer in your direction," as Robb put it. It is medium-bodied and does taste like pale ale, displaying malty flavors with a touch of citrus and pine. This was the best gluten-free brew of the tasting. Try it with grilled bratwurst subs. 5.8 percent ABV $11.50/Six-pack
Gordon Kendall's column on wine and spirits runs monthly in Extra.
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