What Every Homebrewer Should Know Before Attempting a Gluten-Free Recipe

by Todd Hamm | Last Updated: April 14, 2016
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Most of us know at least one person who avoids gluten like the plague. Whether they are gluten-intolerant, allergic, or suffer from Celiac disease, they won’t touch the stuff.

If you’re like me, you hate to see it.. because that means they can’t try the delicious beer you’ve worked so hard to craft!

So, the thought crosses your mind: “I can brew great tasting beer at home, I wonder if I can make a good gluten-free beer?”

The answer is yes.

But it’s not going to be as easy as you might think. Even if you’re a seasoned brewer, creating a good gluten-free beer is a challenge. But to the gluten-hating friend you’re brewing for, your “good” is probably their “OMG, IT’S REAL BEER!”

Let’s Define Some Terms: Gluten-Free vs. Gluten-Reduced

This article focuses mainly on gluten-free brewing, not gluten-reduced. There is a HUGE difference between the two and it’s very important to know before proceeding, especially if you’re brewing for someone with Celiac.

Jason Morgan wrote a great article on CraftBrewingBusiness on the difference between the two terms, and why gluten-reduced beer may still be dangerous to those with severe allergies or Celiac.

In order for a beer to be truly gluten-free it must be brewed exclusively with 100% gluten-free ingredients and not come into contact with anything that may contain gluten. This is no easy task, as we’ll see later in this article.

Gluten-reduced beer, also labeled as “crafted to remove gluten,” is becoming more common in the commercial realm. Omission makes some solid gluten-reduced beers, and Stone’s Delicious IPA is a must try.

Clarity Ferm

Gluten-reduced means that traditional gluten-containing ingredients (barley, wheat and rye) were used to brew the beer, but a technique or product such as Clarity Ferm was used to reduce the amount of gluten in the final product.

Clarity Ferm, a product of White Labs, contains an enzyme which breaks down the proteins in beer that causes chill haze (hence the name Clarity) and nearly all gluten protein chains in the beer.

Gluten Free

There is some controversy as to whether or not the enzyme eliminates or rather simply breaks up the gluten protein chain into tiny, immeasurable parts. This article from HomebrewTalk provides a great explanation of the effects of Clarity Ferm, why the ELISA tests suck at measuring gluten in beer, and why you should never give a gluten-reduced beer to a person with Celiac.

Either way, Clarity Ferm does a great job at its originally intended purpose – clarifying your beer.

You can find Clarity Ferm in vials suitable for 5g batches online or at your local homebrew store (LHBS).

Glutenberg brewery is one of the top truly gluten-free breweries in the world, so check them out for some great examples of gluten-free beer.

The Grains

This is the biggest learning curve. The most important thing to note here is that gluten-free (GF) grains are quite different from traditional brewing grains in terms of aroma, taste, and mouthfeel, so don’t be surprised when your first batch doesn’t taste like the beer you’re used to.

A surprising number of GF grain varieties exist, and you’ll want to spend some time learning how they taste and how they will impact your beer. It’s also important to note that malted GF grains (other than sorghum) are not widely available. So, you’ll either have to malt your own or find a supplier. GlutenFreeHomeBrewing.org is a great source for malted GF grain and other GF ingredients.

Here are a few of the most common GF brewing grains:

Sorghum

Sorghum

Often used as a base for barley-like recipes, sorghum is the most common GF brewing grain. The flavor profile is fairly bland and grainy, and it can produce a subtle metallic or “sour” flavor that is sometimes mistaken for an infection. Sorghum is widely available as a grain, and is still one of the only GF grains available in LME form.

Millet

Millet

Millet is a common component of birdseed, but that doesn’t mean it’s just for the birds. Some of the most popular gluten-free beers are made with millet. Like sorghum, it’s pretty bland, but is a bit more sweet. Millet is often used as a substitute for wheat.

Buckwheat

Buckwheat

Despite it’s name, buckwheat isn’t related to wheat at all, and it’s not a substitute for wheat either. It’s not really a substitute for anything due to its strong nutty, nearly bitter flavor profile. Toasted buckwheat can be pretty intense, so use it in moderation, much like a specialty grain.

Rice

Rice

Rice is a very versatile and widely used GF brewing ingredient. While it’s relatively tasteless on its own, rice can be toasted to produce a wide range of flavors that mimic pale malt, caramel, chocolate and even coffee malts.

Quinoa

Quinoa

Quinoa isn’t a grain, but it is a grain-like seed that has become very popular in the last few years. Quinoa packs a pleasantly sweet and earthy flavor profile, similar to brewing with oats. It can make a great base to your recipe, but it’s not as common as the previous mentions due to its high price.

For a comprehensive list of GF grains, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation’s website under “What About Grains?”

The Yeast

Be careful here. The yeast itself does not contain gluten, but many yeast labs grow and/or store their yeast in environments containing gluten.

Fermentis Yeasts

So, if you pitch a liquid vial of gluten-contaminated yeast into gluten-free wort, well, it’s no longer gluten-free. Even dry yeast may contain trace amounts of gluten due to the growing environment.

Be sure to check the packaging or manufacturer’s website prior to selecting your yeast. Here are some great GF yeast options:

  • DanStar – All dry yeast strains are certified GF
  • Fermentis – All dry yeast strains are certified GF
  • Wyeast – Certain liquid strains (American Ale II; Bavarian Lager) are certified GF

If you’re lucky enough to live near a local yeast lab, voice your concerns and they should be able to provide a GF solution.

The Hops

Hops

There’s nothing to worry about here. Hops do not contain gluten. So feel free to go crazy and experiment.

But here’s a few tips that might come in handy:

  • Start simple. This goes back to my earlier point about grain substitution. It’s going to taste and feel different, so don’t expect hops to come through in the same way they did with your traditional recipes. Start with one or maybe two hops and see how they taste with the grain.
  • Go with what you know. The grains are going to be unfamiliar. Take out as many unknowns as possible by using hops you are already familiar with. Cascade is a very popular hop to start with.
  • Don’t over-hop the beer. Many brewers find the taste of GF grain to be off-putting and try to mask the flavor by adding more hops. While it is very important to find the right amount of hop bitterness and aroma, the goal should be to compliment the flavor of the grain just as you would a traditional style. Experiment with timing, try dry hopping, or try an entirely different hop next time.

Pro Tips

Many LHBSs sell gluten-free ingredients. My LHBS, Artisans Wine & Homebrew, sells all kinds of GF ingredients and the owners are quite knowledgeable in GF homebrewing. They graciously agreed to provide some expert advice to share with you all!

Me: Would you recommend using extracts vs. all-grain brewing?

Artisans: For your initial foray into gluten free brewing I would recommend extract batches. Most gluten free grains are not malted, so you would need to malt them yourself (time consuming) or find a supplier (not cheap).

Me: What are the best gluten-free ingredients to work with?

Artisans: Sorghum LME does not have a lot of flavor, so the yeast and hops need to shine. Adjuncts are fun to use, and can impart flavor as well. We especially liked the coffee we added to our GF Oatmeal Stout.

Me: What style of beer are GF ingredients best suited for?

Artisans: IPA is probably the best style to try because you don’t need the mouthfeel that is normally acquired from gluten grains such as wheat and barley.

Me: Are there any rules of thumb when converting a gluten recipe to gluten-free?

Artisans: Follow a [GF] recipe, or use it as a template to make your own.  It’s important to understand the ratios of the base “malt” to the specialty ingredients. Plus, step outside the box, and go beyond sorghum. Sorghum is a good base but your flavors come from other adjuncts. Try adding sweet potato to the mix, or tapioca with coconut. Throw in Belgian candi syrup (D180), and you might have the next great craft beer!

Me: What’s the most important thing to know when creating a gluten-free recipe?

Artisans: Be willing to experiment, and do small batches. There are recipes on the internet that you can either follow or tweak to your tastes. Hey, if you can make beer and enjoy it without repercussions, that’s a big win in itself!

Big thanks to Artisans Wine & Homebrew for the GF homebrewing advice!

Being Gluten-Free Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Enjoy a Good Beer

GF brewing is still relatively uncharted territory, but the availability and quality of GF homebrewing ingredients is getting better and better due to the increase in gluten intolerance across the nation.

So now is the time to take advantage of this growing industry. It’ll take a little extra work and creativity, but the final product will be that much more rewarding!

Have you ever brewed a GF beer?

Todd is a man of many hobbies. Obstacle course racing, programming, cooking, snowboarding, thinking of random business ideas, weight-lifting, beards, and most recently homebrewing. With little time to become a full-fledged beer geek, Todd focuses on the practical side of brewing. He’s always looking for ways to improve his process and shorten the brew day without sacrificing quality or control. Todd is an up-and-comer in the exploding Richmond, VA craft beer scene.