Craft Beer Gets Its Gluten Free Beer On

By Kimberly Lord Stewart

Talented craft breweries are changing the way we view “gluten-free” for good.


If you’ve given up on beer because you avoid gluten, there is hope. Gluten-free beers and even ciders have become more craft-like, so hanging your head in gluten-free defeat no longer means giving up on good-tasting beer.

There was a time when gluten-free beer was illegal; not the prohibition kind of illegal, but the definition of beer required at least 25 percent barley. For people with celiac disease that meant beer became a pleasant memory.

In 2005, Russ Klisch, president of Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, got a call from a Houston doctor who had given up beer because of celiac disease. As the story goes, Klisch’s brewmaster, Mark Paul, couldn’t drink beer with his dad because he had celiac disease as well. Klisch approached the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to request a change in the way beer could be made; six weeks later, the approval came through and the gluten-free beer industry was born.

In Colorado, Laura Lodge, a craft beer consultant, has a similar story. For Lodge, celiac diagnosis was particularly troublesome. She is the co-founder of the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival, a popular beer fest hosted in Vail each January. Her diagnosis meant a big change, but Lodge says there are plenty of enjoyable gluten-free beers, meads and ciders. “When you’re first diagnosed, it’s easy to think about all the things that you can’t have. Craft beer was certainly on the list,” Lodge says. “When I was diagnosed three-and-a-half years ago, there were not a lot of gluten-free options. As a beer drinker who really likes sours, I gravitated toward cider and mead as an alternative.”

Lodge sat down with me for a one-on-one, gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer tasting at Falling Rock Tap House. Denver beer drinkers know Falling Rock as the historic LoDo epicenter of craft beers with 92 handles on tap. Chris Black, king of Falling Rock, has dedicated one tap to gluten-free beer, four bottles in their case, one gluten-reduced beer and three ciders or meads. “The word is getting out and people with celiac disease are coming back to the bar because of our gluten-free beer menu,” says Black.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would the beers taste like beer or something entirely different? The answer is both, and I have to admit most of the beers still owned the qualities one expects, such as hops, yeast, caramel, fruit and more. For instance, New Planet Pale Ale has a full-on hoppy American-style beer taste, and after a few sips my brain reminded my taste buds that it’s also gluten-free. “It’s all about creating a craft-beer experience with non-craft beer ingredients,” says Peter Archer, brand manager for New Planet Beer, a certified Coloradobased gluten-free beer company. “It’s a well-made beer that happens to be gluten-free.”

Ginger Johnson, consultant and founder of Women Enjoying Beer, says better gluten-free beer is a good thing for everybody. “At tastings, I make gluten-free a non-issue,” she says. “The gluten-free and reduced-gluten beers are so good these days, there is no need to settle.” Johnson believes that the gluten-free category will inspire all brewers to use nontraditional ingredients.

There is a significant health difference between gluten-free and gluten-reduced beers. People with celiac disease should choose gluten-free beer. Varieties from breweries, such as New Planet Beer, Lakefront Brewery, Bonfire Brewing, Dogfish Head Brewing and Epic Brewing Company are made with ingredients completely free of gluten. Typically they include a combination of sorghum, rice, millet, buckwheat, hops and yeast, plus various flavor ingredients.

For those who can tolerate gluten but prefer to avoid it, gluten-reduced may be acceptable. Beers from breweries, such Brunehaut Brewery and Omission, are made with wheat and barley, and then the gluten is extracted using an enzyme.