Reinheitsgebot Rules

By Peter Bailey.

Three chords and the truth. That’s all you need for a good country song. And for a good beer? All you need is water, barley and hops.

At least that is what the Reinheitsgebot says. That’s the Bavarian Beer Purity law, decreed in 1516 by Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV. Yeast was added to the list in the 17th century, once brewers figured out what it was doing to their beer. Still in force five centuries later, the Reinheitsgebot is considered the world’s oldest food safety and consumer protection legislation. Interestingly, the real reason for the beer law may have been economic. Duke Wilhelm wanted to prevent the price of wheat and rye from rising for bakers. Restricting brewers to barley kept bread affordable. Later, in 1987, the European Court ruled that the Reinheitsgebot was an unfair restriction on trade in beer brewed elsewhere in Europe.

The German founders of great American beer empires had no qualms at leaving the Reinheitsgebot behind them when they came to the New World. Today Anheuser-Busch notes unapologetically, “we brew our lager using fresh, verdant rice – milled, polished, graded and immediately brewed for a light and crisp taste.” Indeed, Anheuser-Busch is the largest single buyer of rice in the United States. Over in Asia the lack of barley led to the invention of saké, or rice wine. Saké is not actually a wine, rather a form of beer brewed from rice. In Japan today we have seen the rapid rise of the Third Category beers, brewed entirely without barley malt.

Early North American craft brewers turned away from the big brewers and their use of rice, corn and other adjuncts. Some, like pioneer Ontario microbrewery Upper Canada, harkened back to the rigid purity of the Reinheitsgebot. Happily, today the craft beer world has room for both the only-barley-is-beer crowd and the rebels brewing with whatever crosses their path. I had an absolutely spectacular Portland beer recently, Hopworks 7 Grain Survival Stout, brewed with barley, wheat, oats, amaranth, quinoa, spelt and kamut. And Stumptown coffee too!

Craft brewers’ hunger to try new things has met up nicely with people looking for alternatives. In particular, gluten-free beer has grown exponentially in the last two years. Julianna Mimande, manager of the Glasshouse Bistro in St. Albert, told me that “people seem to just be grateful to have an option” when they see GF beer on the menu. There’s a sizeable market — celiacs unable to process gluten, those with a sensitivity to gluten and even those on fad diets. As Jimmy Fallon joked cruelly, “A new study found that about 1 per cent of the U.S. population is allergic to gluten, while the other 99 per cent are sick of having to hear about it.”

Regardless, there is a growing demand for gluten-free beer. Alley Kat’s Neil Herbst told me they have “considered it but haven’t found a way to make what we consider a tasty gluten-free beer.” Indeed, some of the gluten-free beers I have tried are Frankenbeers, destined for the drain. But innovative brewers like Montreal’s Glutenberg are getting closer. Perhaps someday tasty gluten-free beer will not be an oxymoron.

Gluten-free Six Pack

Growing from just a few choices a couple of years ago, gluten-free beers now take up a full bay of shelves at Sherbrooke Liquor. Better beer stores like Keg n Cork or Wine and Beyond also carry a good selection.

GreensGreen’s Discovery Ale, Belgium

As a celiac, Englishman Derek Green was used to a gluten-free diet, but he really, really wanted a beer. He worked with a Belgian brewing professor to develop this gluten-free amber ale, first released in 2004. Perhaps the best gluten-free beer in the world, Discovery is brewed with millet, buckwheat, rice and sorghum.

GlutenbergGlutenberg American Pale Ale, Montreal

While Glutenberg is an odd name for a brewery that brews 100% gluten-free beer, there’s no mistaking the commitment of these young Quebecers to making first-class beer. Brewed with millet, buckwheat, corn and quinoa plus candy syrup and Demerara sugar, this hoppy, bitter and sweet ale is a charmer.

DauraEstrella Damm Daura, Barcelona

Daura is the gluten-free version of Estrella Damm, a classic European lager brewed since 1876. Unlike true gluten-free beers that don’t use barley or wheat, Daura is brewed with barley malt but undergoes a process which removes the gluten proteins. Daura tastes more like “regular” beer, perfect with tapas on the patio.

mongozoMongozo Pilsener, Belgium

Like Estrella Daura, Mongozo Pilsener is not technically a gluten-free beer as it is made from malted barley, then processed to have almost all the gluten removed (less than 10 PPM – parts per million). The presence of barley means Mongozo smells and tastes like a crisp, malty German lager.

AgainstWold Top Against the Grain, Yorkshire, UK

Britain’s “first and favourite” gluten-free beer, Wold Top Against the Grain declares itself the most beer-like of all gluten-free beers. Brewed in rural Yorkshire, Wold Top is made with maize and barley, so is technically a low-gluten beer (less than 20 PPM). A fine, mellow English bitter.

drummandDrummond Gluten Free, Red Deer

Beer brewed without barley, right in the heart of Alberta’s barley belt? Yes. Props to Alberta’s Drummond for taking a chance on a niche market segment, releasing a sorghum-based beer this year. While sorghum tends to impart an unusual taste, here Drummond has done a great job of brewing a beer that tastes like a beer.

Peter Bailey thanks his gluten intolerant friends for the opportunity but is happy to switch back to barley. He tweets as @Libarbarian.