Gluten-Free Beer: Behind the Labels

in Celiac, The Celiac Expert
Published: August 22, 2013
Gluten-free beer glass and bottle on a brown  background.Photo: Getty

The number of beers labeled “gluten-free” has skyrocketed in recent years, and with vast improvements in variety and taste, the warm-weather landscape is encouraging for those with celiac disease. But it’s still important to exercise caution before popping the bottle cap and imbibing freely.

Regular beer is off-limits since it’s made via the fermentation of barley, a process that doesn’t remove the gluten protein. Gluten-free beers have avoided this problem by starting with gluten-free grains, such as sorghum, millet, rice or buckwheat, each providing its own unique essence.

For die-hard beer drinkers still pining for “traditional” flavors, new barley-based lagers such as Omission from Widmer Brothers have hit the market. Many consumers liken Omission to conventional beer both in appearance and taste, but the manufacturer states they use a special proprietary method to “hydrolyze” (break down) and remove the toxic barley peptide fragments, making it safe for those with celiac disease.

After some initial euphoria, Omission’s gluten-free claim came under scrutiny by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the U.S. Treasury that regulates the labeling of barley-based beers. In an interim policy, they ruled that no barley-based beers could carry the label “gluten free” regardless of brewing methods.

‘Processed to Remove Gluten’

The TTB’s stance is backed by concerns that current testing cannot fully verify the removal of all gluten from hydrolyzed beers. The competitive R5 ELISA test is used to determine the gluten-free status of beer, but it may not be as sensitive as needed, potentially yielding an “all clear” result when gluten might still be present. The test also requires formal validation in a multi-laboratory trial before the TTB will approve it as a conclusive test for obtaining gluten-free status.

The TTB will allow Omission, and similar barley-based brands like Prairie Path and Daura, to use the declaration “processed to remove gluten” along with the qualifying statement: “Product fermented from grains containing gluten and processed to remove gluten. The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.”

Until they can be verified as gluten-free by a fully validated test, many celiac experts recommend holding off on the hydrolyzed barley-based beers. To ensure safe sipping, purchase brews that are fermented from gluten-free grains in dedicated gluten-free facilities or on lines that follow strict protocols to prevent cross-contamination with barley, wheat and rye beers.

If gluten-free beer has yet to satisfy your palate, consider a refreshing libation made with gluten-free liqueurs or distilled alcohols such as rye, gin, vodka or rum. Unlike fermentation, the distillation process does remove all gluten protein for a beverage that’s recognized as safe for those with celiac disease. However, if you drink ciders, coolers or other flavored alcoholic drinks, check the labels to make sure they do not contain barley malt.

Gluten-Free Beers

Following are brews fermented from gluten-free grains that have obtained gluten-free labeling status.

U.S. Gluten-Free Leaders:

Bard’s Gold Craft sorghum beer brewed by Bard’s Tale in a dedicated facility. Also available in Canada.
Green’s Gluten-Free U.K.-based brewery ferments Belgian ales from millet, sorghum, buckwheat, rice, hops, water and yeast. Varieties include Discovery Amber Ale, Endeavour Dubbel Ale and Quest Tripel Blonde Ale. Also available in Canada.
Ground Breaker Brewing AleNot a speck of gluten enters their dedicated facility, where chestnuts and certified gluten-free oats are used to produce IPA, Pale Ale, Red Ale, Dark Ale and seasonal brews.
New GristLakefront Brewery’s pilsner-style gluten-free beer, brewed with sorghum, rice, hops, water and yeast. The first gluten-free beverage that the government allowed to label as “beer.”
New Planet BeerExclusively brews gluten-free ales, with a collection that includes Pale, Blonde, Belgian, Amber and Raspberry. The latter is made from an unusual quartet of sorghum syrup, corn, orange peel and Oregon raspberry purée.
RedbridgeReadily available sorghum-based lager produced by Anheuser-Busch.

Canada Gluten-Free Beers:

Heady’s Honey CitrusHeady Brewing Company in Toronto produces their single selection from rice and sorghum in a dedicated facility.
La MessagèreLa Messagère Pale Ale, Messagère Red Ale and Messagère Millet Lager are brewed by Les bieres de la Nouvelle-France in Quebec using rice, buckwheat and millet.
Nickel Brook Gluten FreeOntario’s original gluten-free beer is fermented from sorghum, Demerara sugar and pear juice, but brewed in classic Pale Ale style. Better Bitters Brewing Company follows strict sanitation protocols for gluten-free production.
St. Peter’s G-FreeThis sorghum-based beer hails from England, but is brewed with citrusy American hops. They also brew a dark GF beer, but it’s not available in Canada at this time.

Shelley Case is a consulting dietitian and author of Gluten-Free: The Definitive Resource Guide. She is on the advisory boards of the Canadian Celiac Association, the Celiac Disease Foundation and Gluten Intolerance Group.