Love beer but hate gluten? Gluten-free beer to the rescue!

More and more people want the food and drink they consume to be gluten-free, whether that’s for a medical reason or a ‘lifestyle choice’. The range of gluten-free products on offer has increased accordingly, and this includes gluten-free beer. Brewers are working hard to meet this demand and deliver beers low on gluten but high on body and flavour.

Do these grains contain gluten?

What is gluten and why do some people avoid it?

Gluten is the name for a family of proteins that occur naturally in certain grains, including barley, wheat, and rye. It’s what gives bread its deliciously chewy texture, and it’s part of what gives beer its body.

Bread - full of gluten
Mmm… bread…

Some people are unable to tolerate gluten in their diet. Coeliac disease, which affects around 1% of the population, is the most sever form of this intolerance. It is an autoimmune disorder that can cause nutrient deficiencies, anaemia, severe digestive issues and an increased risk of many diseases.

The most common symptoms of coeliac disease are digestive discomfort, tissue damage in the small intestines, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, headache, tiredness, skin rashes, depression, weight loss and foul-smelling faeces.

Subscribe to get full access to all posts

There are others who react negatively to gluten despite not testing positively for coeliac disease. People in this group may represent up to 13% of the population. Symptoms of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity include diarrhoea, stomach pain, tiredness, bloating and depression.

Beyond that, many people seek to avoid gluten in their diet for one reason or another. Some studies in the USA, for instance, estimate that this may account for more than 30% of the population.

A field of wheat
Not all grains are the same!

One side note: some people who believe themselves to be gluten intolerant are actually allergic to wheat. While avoiding gluten would certainly help with the symptoms of wheat allergy, it is not necessary for these individuals to avoid all gluten. There are plenty of beers brewed without wheat that would be safe for such people to enjoy.

Food sensitivity and food intolerance

Food sensitivity and food intolerance are not the same thing.

Food sensitivity is a reaction by your immune system to the presence of a certain food in your diet. Your body produces antibodies when you eat the food you are sensitive to; the symptoms caused by this reaction can vary from person to person.

Dastardly pasta, chock full of gluten!
Pasta: a vehicle for gluten.

Food intolerance means you cannot digest a certain food well, usually because you lack a certain enzyme. A good example of this is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar contained in milk. If you do not have enough lactase (the enzyme) to digest it, the lactose will be fermented by your gut bacteria, which causes gas and bloating.

Does beer contain gluten?

As you probably know, one of the four ingredients in beer is malt. But what is malt?

Malt is grains, typically barley, that have been through the process of steeping, germination, drying, and roasting. Other grains commonly used by brewers are wheat and rye.

Beer sommeliers need to know about beer's ingredients

As barley, wheat and rye are the main sources of gluten in our diet, it follows that beer too contains gluten.

It’s not called liquid bread for nothing!

What determines how much gluten is in a beer?

Some beers may contain other grains alongside barley or wheat in their grain bill – that is, the part of the beer’s recipe made up by grains. Some macro lagers (e.g. Bud Lite and beers of that ilk) will contain rice, which will lower the overall amount of gluten found in the beer.

Other factors that decrease gluten levels include use of stabilisers and specific equipment like a centrifuge, filters, and a whirlpool.

Factors that can raise the level of gluten in a beer include the use of wheat, the amount of malt used in a recipe, and the original gravity of the beer. Original gravity is a measure of how much of the natural sugars contained within the grains was extracted into the beer during the first stage of brewing.

But if you want to avoid gluten, all is not lost. You can still enjoy a beer.

Beer can be gluten-free

Yay! Beer!
Yay! Beer!

If you love beer but gluten doesn’t love you, there’s some good news. There is more gluten-free beer available now than there was even one or two years ago, and there are more breweries producing more types of gluten-free beer all the time. Even malt-heavy styles like stout can now be made naturally gluten-free.

Read to the end of the article for a list of some of the gluten-free beers on the market in the UK and Ireland.

You may be wondering: if beer normally contains gluten, how can it be made gluten-free?

There are two main routes brewers can take. The first is to brew a beer in the usual manner and then process it to remove the gluten. Brewers add enzymes to the beer which break the gluten down during the fermentation and conditioning stages until it falls to a low enough level for the gluten-free label to be applied. Beer made in this was is sometimes called de-glutenised.

The second is to brew the beer using grains such as rice, millet, or quinoa that do not contain gluten in the first place. These beers are sometimes referred to as naturally gluten-free.

A brewer inspecting his grains
Brewers think about grains a lot more than normal people.

What qualifies as gluten-free?

The labelling of gluten-free foods in the UK is regulated by the Food Standards Agency.

It states that food and drink may be labelled as gluten-free at 20 parts per million of gluten or less (or 0.0002%). This equals the smallest level detectable by validated testing methods.

Food and drink with 100ppm of gluten or less may be labelled as ‘very low gluten’ – however, only foods with cereal ingredients that have been specially processed to remove the gluten may make a ‘very low gluten’ claim.

In the USA it is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau which controls labelling on beer. There too the threshold of 20ppm is used.

Fermenting vessels in a brewery
Fermenting vessels… what’s going on in there?

Let me know what you think

Before I get into the list of gluten-free beers, I want to ask you a couple of questions: do you know someone who has had to adjust their diet to avoid gluten? Do you know someone who’s cut beer out altogether? If so, why not share this post with them. Perhaps they will be able to rediscover the pleasure to be had from a good pint!

If you’ve tried any of the beers listed below yourself, let me know in the comments what you thought of them.

Gluten-free beer is better now than it's ever been

Examples of gluten-free beers

What follows is by no means an exhaustive list. These are just a few examples of gluten-free beers I have managed to find online. Tasting notes are the brewers’ own. I have concentrated mainly on beers available in the UK and Ireland.

Subscribe to continue reading

Subscribe to get access to the rest of this post and other subscriber-only content.