For people who suffer from celiac disease or are intolerant to gluten, beer has always been more of a taboo than a pleasure. The gluten contained in (malted) barley and other grains normally used in the brewing process means that beer is not recommended for people who suffer from these disorders: they must strongly limit its consumption, or completely eliminate it from their diets.
But things have drastically changed, thanks mainly to a greater awareness that has motivated breweries all over the world to take on an unprecedented and ambitious challenge: offering products that can be consumed by people who are intolerant to gluten.
The gluten-free beer market is a rapidly growing niche. Until not so long ago, it was only occupied by large companies, but in recent years craft and independent breweries have also become interested in these products.
Two types of beers are available for celiacs. Genuine gluten-free beers contain no gluten at all, as they are made with ingredients that do not contain this protein complex. Low-gluten beers, instead, contain a gluten percentage below the minimum threshold (below 20 ppm), which means that they can be safely consumed by people who are intolerant to gluten.
As we mentioned, gluten-free beers are made with ingredients that contain no gluten. These are all beers where barley (or any other similar grain) is replaced by different products: gluten-free grains (rice, corn, millet), pseudo-grains (quinoa, buckwheat) or other ingredients that can provide the necessary fermentable sugars (chestnuts, pumpkin, etc.).
This solution ensures that the end product is safe, but it also creates some problems, both in terms of production process and organoleptic qualities. It is not by chance that, over the years, barley has emerged as the staple grain to make beer: its properties ensure unparalleled results and giving it up is a limitation and a challenge at the same time.
For this reason, 100% gluten-free beers are not that easy to approach. The ingredients used to replace barley give very specific tastes and scents, which can be very different from what we are used to in "normal” beers.
In recent years, the production of gluten-free beers has made great progress in terms of quality. In some cases, they can be a valid alternative for people who are looking for a product with no trace of gluten at all.
The beers in this category can be considered as normal barley malt beers, but some “corrections” are made at several steps of the brewing process to reduce the gluten content. These adjustments can be made upstream, for instance by using deglutinated malt: this is barley malt where most of the components that produce gluten are removed with industrial processes. Similarly, it is possible to use specific enzymes at the end of the brewing process to reduce the production of gluten.
However, these solutions may seem a bit artificial and ethically in contrast with the philosophy behind many craft beers. Luckily, there is an alternative: a few things can be done - when writing the recipe and then brewing the beer - to keep the amount of gluten below the minimum threshold.
There are many different solutions and they are often used together: using a certain amount of gluten-free grains in addition to barley malt; using specific techniques during the brewing process; increasing the beer clarification time, etc.
In all cases, though, the problem of low-gluten beers is that they cannot guarantee that the amount of gluten they contain is always kept below the required minimum level. While industrial breweries follow highly standardized processes, small craft breweries work with a greater variability between different batches. This requires continuous controls and checks and a consolidation of all steps in the brewing process. However, it goes without saying that these beers are the ones that ensure the best results in terms of taste and scents, and often they cannot be told apart from their “normal” counterpart.