If it looks like a beer, smells like a beer, and tastes like a beer, well it must be beer! Not necessarily the case. And on two fronts. Beer is the most recent consumable product that is starting to see significant attention by the gluten intolerant community. The problem with the term “gluten-free beer” is that in order to make it you cannot use malted barley – which is loaded with gluten. But if you aren’t using some form of malted barley then the beverage technically cannot be called beer. At least not in Canada. Not right now. I think the real problem though lies beyond these bureaucratic rules and regulations and in the fact that very few beers that are made without barley in order to be gluten free don’t actually taste like beer. They may look like beer, and sometimes smell like beer, but no, they don’t taste like beer. And that is where the market has some room to grow; creating gluten-free, or gluten-reduced beers that are actually beer.
They main problem with creating a delicious gluten-free beer lies within its specific criteria – not having any gluten. As mentioned above, the primary ingredient in beer that makes it unquestionably discernible as beer (ie. barley) is loaded with gluten. Brewers trying to create beer without barley will look to an alternate source of fermentable sugars that will hopefully fill the gap that stripping the barley will leave. Classically brewers have looked to sorghum, millet, rice, buckwheat or corn to find these sugars, and often they come in liquid or syrup form. The issue is now that none of these ingredients really taste like barley, and they certainly don’t provide the body and structure that barley does (because of the lack of gluten… ooh, that’s going to be tough to get around).
Lets forget about the quality of these ingredients though – the real issue is that no one is taking it upon themselves to take the raw ingredient and make them flavorful. How would you do that? The same way that barley from a field is turned into a delicious beer ingredient… By malting it! Because of the low demand for malted gluten-free grains, and the fact that you would have to build an independent and focused malting house dedicated to producing these grains brewers are left to syrups and their imagination. Which, at least to my experience, is not working.
I have to correct myself partially here though – because there is at least one example of a brewery that has been malting their own gluten-free grains on a very small scale, and will soon be adding a commercial sized malting unit dedicated to gluten-free malting for craft-sized beers. My hat goes off to the Snowman Brewing team, whose beers have astonished me over and over again, and fooled even the most particular of beer ticking raters.
There is one more option though that seemingly could produce gluten-free beers of remarkable similarity to true beer. Mongozo, the brewery that brought you the delicious Mongozo Coconut, has released a new beer called Premium Pilsner – a Fairtrade, Organic, Gluten-Free Beer. Yes, that is a lot of adjectives to follow the beer’s name, but whats really important is that this beer is brewed with malted barley. What!? So it can technically be considered beer, but how can’t it be loaded with gluten if it is brewed with barley?
Brewing and fermentation is an unbelievable science that get overlooked by the general public, but the technology that is used to develop some of the worlds best beers has been in the forefront of innovation for thousands of years. Mongozo is using one of these such technologies in order to remove the gluten in the beer, leaving it with less than 10 ppm of gluten (note, that the generally acceptable range for a beer to be listed as gluten-free right now is 20 ppm – this number varies in different markets). So, to be clear, the Premium Pilsner is brewed with malted barley, just like a classic German or Czech Pilsner would be, but then “an innovative technique removes the gluten”, leaving it gluten-free, or more accurately, gluten-reduced.
The beer pictured at the top of this posting is the Mongozo Premium Pilsner, so it certainly looks the part, and really exemplified a wonderfully fluffy foam with solid retention and structure. Gluten-free or not, it looks wonderful; sunny, golden, bright and brilliant. Step one, check!
The aroma lifting from this pretty glass is gently aromatic and floral with fresh hops that show bright fields, a touch of citrus and spice, and a clean herbal note. There was also a soft bready character dug right in the heart of the beer. Overall the aroma was soft, but very clean, very pretty, and definitely beer. It was not quite as rich or floral as a traditionally brewed Pilsner should be (depending where you hail from) but it was pretty close. Step two, check!
Now the big test, which I will combine as flavour and mouthfeel. And I am happy to say that I’d check this step off too. The beer is clean and elegant with a soft hoppy bitterness, noticeable hop flavours, and subtle malt character leaning into light bread and honey. The mouthfeel is not as structured or crisp as a Czech Pils would be, but it still shows some substance and feels like beer on my palate. Moreso, it has more body even than some regular pils-style beers being produced by some of the world’s biggest breweries.
Because I am not in the gluten-free consumer market – I looooove my gluten – I would not be buying the Premium Pilsner. Its very close to a great Pils, closer than any other gluten-free example I have ever tried, but my palate craves bigger sensations. Clearly though, that’s besides the point, because I am not the target market. I do think that those who don’t drink beer right now because the gluten makes them ill will love this beer, and should certainly be seeking it out (which for now, will be on draught only in Ontario). And truth be told, if I didn’t know that it was gluten-free, it’s doubtful that I would have guessed it.