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Going against the grain
If you're a coeliac or have a gluten intolerance, then you have to avoid cereals like wheat and barley. But what happens if you're a beer lover? Daniel Cooper reports.
For many of us beer is only beer if it is made from four ingredients, the finest malt barley, choicest hops, pure spring water and specially selected yeast. However, for beer-loving suffers of coeliac disease it is the use of barley malt that makes the consumption of beer problematic.
Many of us have heard of coeliac disease or at least recognise gluten intolerance but what actually is it and how does it affect the people that suffer from it? More importantly, what has the brewing industry done to help sufferers of the disease enjoy their favourite tipple?
Coeliac disease is not a food allergy but rather an autoimmune disease where the body’s own immune system produces antibodies which then attack its own tissue. The symptoms of the disease can range from mild to severe and include things such as bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, tiredness, anaemia, abdominal discomfort and mouth ulcers. More serious long term health effects can manifest themselves if the disease remains undiagnosed and therefore untreated until later life as coeliacs are more at risk of osteoporosis and gut cancer.
The component of the diet that is responsible for coeliac disease is gliadin, a gluten protein, found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. The body’s immune system reacts to the gluten protein producing antibodies which attack the small fingerlike projections known as villi that line the small intestine and play a vital role in digestion. When damaged the villi are unable to absorb food properly leading to many of the symptoms associated with the disease such as diarrhoea.
Coeliac UK, the charity for sufferers of coeliac disease, estimates that in the United Kingdom there are around 125,000 medically diagnosed sufferers. However, recent studies show that 1 in 100 people have coeliac disease which means that there are almost another 500,000 people who suffer from the disease but are as yet undiagnosed.
Unfortunately there is no cure for coeliac disease, but by adhering to a strict gluten free diet it is possible to control.
There is some debate over the gluten level that is acceptable to coeliacs and around the world there are different standards for what can be termed ‘gluten free.’ For example in Australia only products with no detectable gluten can be classed as gluten free, but in the UK a food product can be considered gluten free if it contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. This disagreement in standards means that in some countries a product labelled gluten free would actually contravene labelling or food standards legislation in other countries.
With this confusion it is understandable that for many sufferers unless the beer is totally gluten free and therefore free from barley malt there is no assurance that it is safe for them to consume.
This leads us to the point of the article – beer.
Barley, being a major constituent of beer and also one of the cereals that contains gluten, presents a problem for coeliac sufferers. Interestingly some people with the disease have found, by experimentation, that they can tolerate certain beers even though they are produced from malted barley. Some brewers also claim that beers made from grains such as sorghum, rice and maize with a small proportion of barley malt are safe to drink. The belief is that by using smaller quantities of barley malt the concentration of gluten introduced into the beer is reduced.
Furthermore during the brewing process it is widely believed that the gluten protein is broken down into its constituent amino acids thus rendering it harmless.
However there is some concern and evidence to suggest that this claim may be inaccurate. The fear is that although protein is broken down into amino acids during brewing, this process is incomplete and peptide fragments of gluten may remain in the beer. Thus for many sufferers beer is strictly relegated to the list of food and drink to avoid.
Are brewers doing anything to address this problem?
Well fortunately for beer loving coeliacs, they are.
Although the brewing of a totally gluten free beer is achievable it comes with its own unique set of technical difficulties. Obviously all the ingredients must be gluten free, which means all malt, starch, sugar or syrup used in the brewery must be derived from a gluten free source.
Yeast, which is typically propagated on wort – derived from gluten containing barley malt, must be grown on a gluten free nutrient media. Finally perhaps the most essential difficulty to remedy is to find a suitable source of fermentable carbohydrate which also provides the same or similar flavour characteristics of barley malt.
Fortunately there are many common substitutions for gluten-rich grains which are used in the wider food industry, including buckwheat, sorghum, rice, maize, millet, and soybean. Brewers have experimented with a number of these as replacements for barley malt with mixed results.
Rice and maize are already common ingredients employed by brewers in the production of beer and so make ideal ingredients in a gluten free beer. However, when using both of these grains, where a malted cereal is not present, the brewer has to employ enzymes typically derived from fungi to convert the starch into fermentable sugars.
Barley naturally synthesizes a range of enzymes when it is malted and it is these enzymes which, during mashing, convert starch into simple sugars that can be fermented by yeast. Without a cereal such as barley that has been malted, that crucial process would not occur without the assistance of fungal enzymes added by the brewer. Beer is a wholesome and natural product and brewers like to be able to brew their beer without using additives such as enzymes. So gluten free brewers have experimented with trying to malt sorghum and buckwheat.
Of the two grains sorghum has perhaps received the lion’s share of attention due to its use in the production of what we would recognise as beer, often referred to as clear beer, as well as the traditional cloudy beer that is unique to Africa. It is true to say that clear beers brewed in Africa are mainly brewed using barley malt. However, in certain African countries such as Nigeria during the 90s legislation, introduced to encourage the use of local grains rather than imported barley malt, forced brewers to adapt their brewing techniques so that they could make beer totally from sorghum.
As part of this adaptation process a lot of research was conducted on whether it was possible to malt sorghum. It was found that with a few technical tweaks to the malting process sorghum could be malted for brewing purposes. Following the relaxation of the legislation banning imports of malted barley the incentive to malt sorghum disappeared. Brewers could use un-malted sorghum in their beers as long as a proportion of barley malt was present to provide those crucial enzymes.
Therefore large scale commercial malting of sorghum never developed. However, at least one gluten free brewer is malting sorghum for use in their range of gluten free beers.
Buckwheat is not strictly a cereal but because it can be processed in the same way as cereals is often referred to as a pseudo cereal. Buckwheat grains look like small beechnuts and are milled to separate the edible portion from their husks or hulls. The edible portion, often referred to as groats, can be roasted and used as a grain product and as such attempts have been made to malt buckwheat to improve its potential as a grain for brewing. But as in the case for sorghum, commercial scale malting of buckwheat has not really developed.
Malted or not, sorghum, buckwheat, rice and maize all provide the brewer with a selection of suitable gluten free grains that can be used to brew beer. It is through the clever use of individual cereals, such as sorghum, or a combination of different cereals, that brewers have managed to, if not completely, go a long way towards producing a match for the flavour characteristics in beer that are usually derived from barley malt.
Furthermore with innovative application of traditional brewing techniques a number of companies are able to brew a range of beers for coeliacs that look, smell and certainly taste like beer brewed from barley malt. All good news for beer lovers who suffer from coeliac disease.
Some to try Up until recently there was not really much choice available in the UK. However in 2004 Derek Green a coeliac sufferer saw that there was a gap in the UK market and brewed the first of his Green’s Gluten Free Beers. Brewed in Belgium to a closely guarded recipe Discovery beer proved to be a welcome innovation which rapidly gained a loyal following amongst coeliac sufferers desperate for a beer. Since then Green has added another four beers to the range, Endeavour (double dark beer), Pilgrim (cherry beer), Pioneer (lager), Herald (ale) and Trailblazer (lager). All Green’s beers are made from gluten free ingredients so contain no gluten.
www.glutenfreebeers.co.uk In 2005 Hambleton Ales launched the first British brewed gluten free ale. Brewed with specially prepared dark sugars and hopped with Cascade, Liberty and Challenger hops it was developed in response to consumer demand for a full flavoured traditional British ale that could be drunk by coeliac sufferers. The beer has gained many followers and found success in the 2005 Tesco beer challenge where it received the most innovative beer award.
Following the success of the ale Hambleton introduced a lager in the summer of 2006. The Hambleton range of beers are made from gluten free ingredients so contain no gluten.
www.hambletonales.co.uk The Fine Ale Club has Against the Grain ale brewed exclusively for the club for beer loving coeliac sufferers. Although it can be classed gluten free it is made from gluten containing cereals but has been certified as containing less than 13 ppm gluten.
www.ale4home.co.uk In 2006 the US brewing giant Anheuser Busch entered the gluten free beer market with Redbridge a lager style beer made from sorghum and hopped with Hallertau and Cascade hops. Redbridge is brewed from gluten free ingredients so contains no gluten.
www.redbridgebeer.com Bards Tale Brewing Company is a US microbrewery that only brews gluten free beers. The company was founded by coeliac sufferers who loved beer and felt that it was unfair that their condition kept them from enjoying the wide variety of craft brewed beer in the US. After a vast amount of time and money spent on researching the process of gluten free brewing they released the first craft brewed, all sorghum malt, lager style beer Dragon’s Gold. Bards Tale beers are made from totally gluten free ingredients, they grow their yeast on wort made from sorghum malt, and so are completely gluten free.
www.bardsbeer.com Some to try (continued) The Lakefront Brewery based in Milwaukee brew a gluten free beer called New Grist. New Grist is brewed from a blend of sorghum and rice and they grow their gluten free yeast on molasses. New Grist is made from totally gluten free ingredients so is completely gluten free.
www.lakefrontbrewery.com The rapidly expanding craft brewing movement in Australia now has its first completely gluten free brewer. O’Briens based in Ascot Vale, Victoria brews three beers, an ale, lager and pale ale. The beers are 100 per cent gluten free as the brewery only use grains such as buckwheat, maize, rice and sorghum.
The yeast is grown on a gluten free sugar solution.
www.obrienbrewing.com.au The Finnish brewer Sinebrychoff, part of the Carlsberg group, brews Koff lager which although brewed from barley malt have been certified as gluten free.