Sunday, February 10, 2013

the allure, the possibilities, and the failure of gluten-free beers

Before I discovered that wheat/gluten made me ill, I drank beer often. It's just the right thing to have when you come home from working and want something refreshing. Or after a long hard run, to have a beer with dinner.

One of the signs that led to my figuring out that wheat/gluten were making me sick is that I would feel terrible if I had beer the night before, so clearly something was in it that was irritating my stomach.  So beer went out with the wheat, and I have been sad ever since.  Cider just isn't the same (although, there are some tasty ones).

So when our friend D (who also has discovered that gluten is a problem) let us know that he had purchased a plethora of gluten-free beers, I was excited, almost giddy. I had recently read this article discussing gluten-free beer possibilities, and I wanted to try them for myself.  We gathered together to try them.  What we discovered, however, is that most beers brewed without barley are not good, at least not in the way that we're used to thinking about good beer. Sad.

1.) Omission Lager
While we didn't get to try the Omission Pale Ale, D assured us it was as good as the lager.  As the first beer we tried, it ended up setting the bar high for the others, and they never attained the same level.  Upon the first sip, my brain said, "!" It was beer, crisp with a nice bite.  D pointed out that it tasted like a good homebrew lager, a decent middle-of-the-road brew.  It was thoroughly inoffensive, nothing remarkable--unless you haven't had a beer in a while. Then it tastes incredible.

As the NPR article I linked above points out, Omission is not 100% gluten-free because they brew with barley, then remove much of the gluten using an enzyme.  For folks like me who aren't super-sensitive, you won't notice the effects of the bit of gluten that remains.  However, if you're very sensitive, I would avoid this one.  It will be one that I would happily purchase and drink.

2.) New Planet Off Grid Pale Ale
Pale ales are good (to me) because they have a nice bitterness to them.  From aroma to finish, however, this beer failed to be a pale ale.  We all took a whiff before sipping and were a little put off by the aroma, which was not beery at all and actually a little unpleasant.  The first sip hit my tongue with the bitter I wanted, but then the sweet flavor of sorghum overwhelmed and lingered in my mouth.  I kept sipping, hoping it would be okay, but especially after drinking the Omission, I didn't want to finish the small portion in my glass.  The comments: "Not right," "not worth it," and my favorite from L: "Its a beer you try to convince yourself is okay and keep drinking because you ordered it." Definitely not a beer I would willing purchase or drink.

3.) New Planet Tread Lightly
After the first New Planet was so horrible, we were nervous to try this one, but it was actually a bit better than the Off Grid Pale Ale.  My initial reaction was that it wasn't too bad. Light and refreshing, it seemed like the kind of beer you'd want to drink after being outside on a hot day.  D was a bit frustrated, however, by the sweet finish (the result of brewing with sorghum).  I noticed that as I drank, the aftertaste/finish worsens.  None of the three of us enjoy the sorghum flavor in beer, which is the flavor that I disliked in the Bard's Foxtail, and Redbridge sorghum/GF beers I've had in the past.  Ultimately, I wouldn't purchase either of these beers, though I might drink the Tread Lightly if it were offered as the only GF option at a party.

4.) Lakefront Brewery New Grist Beer
This beer was a surprise.  Expecting the same cloying, too sweet sorghum flavor to override any of the tasty beer flavors, sipping this one was actually nice.  On the bottle, it claims that it is "a crisp and refreshing session beer made from sorghum and rice extract," but the sorghum wasn't too overwhelming and the flavor was indeed refreshing.  It actually tasted the most like beer!  While it wasn't the deep, bitter, flavorful beer I miss, it was light and had a nice fruity finish.  While a little sweet, it was tasty.  I would drink this beer happily, though as L pointed out, I probably wouldn't order another. This is a beer I could definitely drink again.

5.) Green's Endeavor Dubbel Dark Ale
We had high hopes for this beer. Just look at the color and the head on the pour.  I was excited because all of the GF beers I'd encountered so far were on the lighter end of the spectrum, but my favorite beers are the dark ones: stouts and porters. This one (and the other two Green's I'll review below) is made with millet, buckwheat, rice, sorghum, hops and Belgium yeast, attempting to bring the same Belgium standard to the world of GF beers. We eagerly took up our glasses and...encountered the familiar sweet aroma (not beer!) of sorghum.  D declared that this was not a dubbel, and he hated it. I was okay with it, but I found it too sweet. (You may notice a theme throughout these reviews).  I wouldn't buy this one or drink this again--it was a disappointment.

D is angry and disappointed.
6.) Green's Tripel Blonde Ale
We had been crushed and disappointed by all the beers, so by this point, we weren't expecting much.  When we poured this one out, we noted the nice appearance, and when we lifted the beer to drink, the aroma that greeted us was better than the Endeavor, subtle.  It was definitely sweeter than a normal beer, but it wasn't horrible.  D pointed out that it had a cider flavor, and if you think of it in terms of cider, it definitely isn't too disappointing.  As I kept drinking it, it got better.  The finish was definitely that same sorghum sweet-flavor that doesn't belong in a beer.  I might drink it again, but I'm unlikely to seek it out.

7.) Green's Amber Ale

Wearied by our tasting efforts, we poured the final beer out.  Once again, we noticed how pretty it looked.  I sipped, and was delighted by the delicious bitter.  Yes? Maybe? Then...the sorghum sweet flavor crept in and destroyed it.  As D pointed out, "it's good...if you don't stop drinking."  As we continued to sip, I noticed that it definitely improved, and seemed to be a solid and passable beer.  Out of the three Green's beers we tried, it is probably the winner.  While I might not seek it out over the other beers that I preferred (the Omission and the New Grist), I would drink it again.

Overall, the beer tasting was interesting and educational.  I figured out that part of the problem is that D and I actively drank good, quality beers, and so we have that standard in mind, which simply cannot apply to GF beers.  They are a completely different beast.  So while most of the beers were a little disappointing, perhaps they were only disappointing if you are/were a beer enthusiast.  

We found much to critique about these beers, and I can only hope that as people experiment with recipes and brewing techniques that the beers will improve.  L, D, and I all decided that we wanted to take a stab at making our own to see if we could potentially find a way to attain a drinkable beer that didn't have the overwhelming sorghum taste.  Because sorghum does have a lot of sugars to brew with, it's obvious why it's a popular choice for brewers.  For us, however, the sorghum was the ingredient that left a bad taste in our mouths and a desire for something decidedly more beer-like.  Perhaps we can find a way to make that happen.

1 comment:

ArkieYogini said...

If you guys decide to give GF beer-brewing a try, let me know. I'll happily contribute some $$ to help support the process (and acquire a few bottles for myself).