The Pros and Cons of Brewing Gluten-Free Beer at Home
Is it really possible to brew good, even great gluten-free ales and lagers at home? Yes! But before you run out to buy everything you need to become a gluten-free home brewer there are some things you need to know.
And in case you decide that home brewing gluten-free beer isn't for you -- see the list of breweries that produce some wonderful gluten-free beers at the end of this article.
Home Brewing Gluten-Free Beer - Part Art / Part Science
Successful home brewing requires a basic understanding of the brewing process which is part art and part science. Most importantly, gluten-free beer does not contain barley, wheat or rye.
Gluten-free beer, both commercial beer and home brewed beer is typically made using liquid gluten-free sorghum extract. Liquid extracts are very thick, concentrated syrups processed by malting companies.
Fortunately almost all home brewing suppliers now sell gluten-free liquid sorghum extract. See our list of home brewing suppliers below. Gluten-free beer recipes sometimes call for the addition (adjunct) of rice syrup or dry corn dextrose which can influence the alcohol content of the finished product.
It's equally important to understand the vital importance of meticulously cleaning and sanitizing brewing and bottling equipment. The time commitment and patience required to let the fascinating fermentation and carbonation processes reach completion under appropriate conditions should not be underestimated when deciding if home brewing is for you.
Gluten-Free Ales and Lagers and Yeast
Ales and lagers are the two beer styles most often brewed at home. The different characteristics of these beer styles are largely defined by the type of yeast used to ferment "wort."
Wort, or "green beer" is what beer is called before it ferments, or "attenuates" and develops its' alcohol content. Ale yeasts attenuate at higher temperatures and more quickly than lager yeasts. Ales are faster and easier to produce and require from 20 to 28 days to brew, ferment and carbonate.
Lagers are wonderful, crisp, crystal-clear beers. Beers made with lager yeasts require a much longer and cooler fermentation period, including transferring the beer from a "primary" fermentation bucket or carboy to a "secondary" fermentation carboy where the beer further clarifies and conditions. Lagers should be considered an advanced brewing technique and require a larger investment in equipment, time, and of course, patience.
Links to gluten-free yeast sources:
Hops and Gluten-Free Brewing:
Hops are the flower, or female seed cone of the humulus lupulus plant. Hops have been used since the beginning of brewing time to add bitterness, aroma, and flavor to beer. They are also a potent natural preservative, which allowed ancient brewers to ship casks of beer to yonder lands without spoiling.
Each variety of hops imparts its' own unique characteristic to beer. Some hops lend floral notes and flavors, others fruity or citrus notes, spicy notes, herbal notes, and evergreen or resinous notes. Choosing the right hops variety for gluten-free ales and lagers is key to the ultimate outcome of home brewed gluten-free beer.
The following ale and lager recipes from Briess Malting call for cascade hops (ale recipe) and cascade, hallertau and saaz hops (lager recipe.) These hops varieties work well with sorghum-based gluten-free beers.
I have experimented with many hops varieties in gluten-free ale and lager recipes, sometimes with disastrous, undrinkable results. Pouring a batch of beer out is a very discouraging experience, but it happens when you experiment. Starting out, you will have the best results if you use the hops varieties called for in the Briess Malting gluten-free beer recipes.
Don't Attempt This at Home -- Until You Understand the Basics of Home Brewing
Before attempting to home brew gluten-free beer you should learn the basics of home brewing, choose good quality gluten-free ingredients and invest in (or borrow,) at minimum, basic brewing and bottling equipment. Brewing your own gluten-free beer is a rewarding hobby for those ready to make the commitment.
Here are some good links that will help you understand what's involved in home brewing beer. Watch the AHA "View and Brew" videos before you attempt your first recipe. These videos illustrate the basics of brewing. You will see brewers using "malted barley" but remember, a gluten-free brewer must not use barley, rye, wheat or oats - grains which contain gluten or may be cross-contaminated with gluten in the case of malted oats.
Links for Home Brewers:
- American Homebrewer Association (AHA)
- Briess Malting recipe for "Hoppy to Be Gluten-Free" pale ale recipe
- Briess Malting recipe for "Honey of a Lager" gluten-free lager recipe
- Technical specs for Briess gluten-free white sorghum syrup
- Online sources for Briess gluten-free white sorghum syrup:
Midwest Supply - includes a recipe for gluten-free ale and Northern Brewer. Google search for more sources.
- Online sources for brewing equipment and supplies include: Midwest Supply, William's Brewing and Northern Brewer.
Note - Before ordering gluten-free ingredients and supplies online, check with your local home brew supply store. They may carry Briess gluten-free white sorghum syrup and the equipment needed to start brewing gluten-free ales and lagers at home - saving you the cost of shipping products ordered online.
Not Ready to Home Brew Gluten-Free Beer?
Good news - those of us on gluten-free diets can still enjoy the pleasure of a well-crafted beer, without the challenges of home brewing. The following list includes some of the breweries that produce gluten-free beer. This is not an all-inclusive brewery list but represents several brands that are widely distributed in the US.
- Red Bridge / Anheuser-Busch
- Bard's Gluten-Free Beer
- Green's Gluten-Free Beers
- New Grist Gluten-Free Beer / Lakefront Brewery
- Honey Beer and Skull Crusher / Ramapo Valley Brewery
- Shakparo Ale and Mbege Ale / Sprecher Brewery
- How to Brew by John Palmer
- The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Pappazain
- New Brewing Lager Beer by Gregory Noonan
Reminder: Always make sure your work surfaces, utensils, pans and tools are free of gluten. Always read product labels. Manufacturers can change product formulations without notice. When in doubt, do not buy or use a product before contacting the manufacturer for verification that the product is free of gluten.