CHOW.com staffers went into our gluten-free beer tasting with open minds. Rather than using barley or rye, gluten-free beer is made with nonwheat grains such as sorghum, rice, corn, and buckwheat. And hey, we like alternative grains! (Just check out our four exotic granolas that don't use oats!) Unfortunately, of the 12 beers we tasted, most were disappointing. Almost none of them had any hop flavor or maltiness to speak of, and most resembled fizzy, light, tasteless American macrobrews like Budweiser.
Why is this category—which has emerged in earnest over the past year to accommodate the growing number of people with gluten intolerance—so unrewarding for beer geeks?
Try making a microbrew-style beer without wheat, and it's a little like trying to play the polka without a tuba. According to Pedro Gonzalez, founder of the exclusively gluten-free brewery New Planet, it's hard to replicate the malty taste of beer if you're not using barley. And without the backbone of malted barley, it's hard to balance out the bitter flavor of hops. New Planet is the only brewery we're aware of that is actually making a gluten-free pale ale, which Gonzalez was able to pull off by using molasses to add depth and heft.
But in the words of megablogger Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. Gluten-Free Girl, "we're still in the very early days of gluten intolerance being understood. Give it another 10 years and gluten-free beer will be even better." We hope so.
Of the dozen beers we tried, which included ales, lagers, and a handful of fruit beers, these are the four that most closely approached drinkability.
New Planet Off Grid Pale Ale
Made from sorghum and brown rice extract, this had a nice rich color and actual hop flavor (not a hop bomb by any means, just enough to remind us we were drinking beer). "Actually passes for beer! Hurray!" wrote one taster.
St. Peter's Sorgham Beer
Slight floral aroma and tasting of honey, lightly toasted grain, and a little hops, this beer would have benefited from a bit more body. "Not half bad," said one commenter.
Estrella Damm Daura Lager
This Spanish beer is actually made from malted barley that's had the gluten removed through high-tech processing. (It does contain minute quantities of gluten, but so little that it still qualifies as gluten-free.) It recalled a familiar American macro like Rolling Rock: pale golden in color, a good frothy head, extremely mild hops, and a slightly stale aftertaste. "Would drink at a boring party," wrote one taster.
It really says something when one of your top picks is a light lager from Anheuser-Busch. Balanced, with no off flavors or weird sweetness (faint praise, we know), this had a dark honey color, a slight toastiness, and almost zero hop flavor. "Generic tasting," wrote one taster.