Monday, October 1, 2012

Results of Eat Real Festival Homebrew Contest

So, last month I made my first foray into homebrew competition, at Oakland's amazing Eat Real Festival.  I entered four beers, not my four best, just the four of which I happened to have two 12-oz bottles on hand.  I didn't win, and they didn't award second or third place, but a couple received high marks from some of the judges.  Quite a few of the judges were BJCP-certified, and my beers were the only gluten-free contenders, competing against regular beers, with no specialty category.  The judges did know they were gluten-free, though at least one didn't know what that meant, and thought it had something to do with brewing without yeast.

Here are the beers I entered, their average scores (out of 20), and the recipes for them, as well as some choice quotes from the judges and my own thoughts on the beers.  They are listed in order of lowest-scoring to highest.

Beer #1: Transatlantic Honey Bitter
Score: 10.7 out of 20 (Grade: F)

3-Gallon Recipe:

Malt bill:
2 lb 10 oz Lundberg Rice Syrup, at 60 min
1 lb D-45 Amber Candi Syrup, at 60 min
8 oz local Oakland wildflower honey, at flameout
4 oz dark brown sugar (organic), at 60 min
2 oz maltodextrin, at 60 min

Hop schedule (all pellets):
0.75 oz Liberty hops, 60 min
0.5 oz Nugget hops, 15 min
0.5 oz Amarillo hops, 5 min
1 oz Palisades hops, 1 min

1 oz Yunnan black tea, steeped at 150°F for 30 seconds prior to boil

Safbrew S-33 dry yeast

Choice quote: "Enjoyed honey aroma, but then that aroma and flavor took over and was more like a mead than a beer".

My thoughts: this was a "clean out the fridge" beer I brewed when a shipment of hops failed to show up in time for brew day.  It was also quite young (as were most of the beers I entered), hence the overpowering honey flavor.  It's since mellowed quite a bit, and has a nice bready character that I attribute either to the S-33 or the Lundberg rice syrup.  It would undoubtedly score higher if it was entered as it tastes now.

Beer #2: Verano Perpetuo Agave-Vanilla Cream Ale
Score: 13 out of 20 (Grade: D+)

3-Gallon Recipe:

Malt bill:
1 lb Sorghum liquid extract, flameout
1 lb Rice syrup solids, 60 min
1 lb Organic amber blue agave nectar, 60 min
12 oz Clover honey, flameout

Hop schedule (all pellets):
0.5 oz Ahtanum, 60 min
0.5 oz Ahtanum, 5 min
1 oz Crystal, 5 min

0.5 oz Organic Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract, at bottling

Safale US-05 dry yeast

Choice quote: "Effervescent, sparkly, who cares if it is GF? Citrus, balanced, delicious vanilla notes."

My thoughts: this beer scored quite high with two judges, and judging by their handwriting, I suspect they were female.  This beer was my first experiment with agave nectar, and when it was quite young, it had a definite tequila tang.  The vanilla was waaaaay overpowering a few weeks after bottling, but mellowed substantially a few weeks later.  Not very "beery" but a fantastic light summer quencher.

Beer #3: Hop-Bursted Pale Ale
Score: 13.8 out of 20 (Grade: C-)

3-Gallon Recipe:

Malt bill:
4 lb Briess 45DE Brown Rice Syrup
8 oz Buckwheat honey
2 oz Maltodextrin

Hop schedule (all pellets):
0.2 oz Millenium hops, 60 min
0.5 oz Amarillo, 20 min
0.5 oz Centennial, 20 min
0.5 oz Amarillo, 10 min
0.5 oz Centennial, 10 min
0.5 oz Amarillo, 1 min

0.5 tsp Yeast nutrient

Safale S-04 dry yeast

Choice quote: "nice, mild, drinkable...what you'd 'expect' w/o yeast" [sic]

My thoughts: I can't take credit for this recipe, I got it from a friend on the forums who said it was the best beer he'd ever made.  It was my first beer using Briess rice syrup, and I should say that while it's a nice alternative to sorghum extract, the malt flavor is very flat and one-dimensional. Not up to my standards.  I wouldn't brew this one again, although the hop flavor was fantastic (especially when it was young--Amarillo hops have a wonderful apricot/passionfruit thing happening that I really enjoy).  It just needs a better malt backbone, even though this was the only one of my beers a judge described as "malty".

Beer #4: Omega Red Russian Imperial Stout
Score: 15.3 out of 20 (B-)

3-Gallon Recipe:

Steeping grains:
2 lbs roasted black "Forbidden" rice (aka purple sweet sticky rice)
2 lbs chocolate-roasted buckwheat (buckwheat roasted to the color of cacao nibs)
1.5 lbs roasted beets
Steep at 150°F for 30 minutes to an hour; add amylase enzyme if desired, to reduce starch haze and add fermentables.

3 lbs Rice syrup solids
2 lbs D-90 dark candi syrup
8 oz Molasses

Hop schedule:
0.5 oz Columbus pellets, 90 min
0.75 oz Willamette whole-leaf, 60 min
0.75 oz Willamette whole-leaf, 20 min
0.5 oz Willamette whole-leaf, 5 min

Safbrew S-33 dry yeast

Choice quote: "Very impressive.  Little to no flavor or body distinction despite lack of gluten-based malts.  Nice balance of hops.  Quite good."  "One of the most nicely-balanced beers of the day!"

My thoughts: I pulled out a lot of stops for this one, and thankfully it had been aging for a good while before I entered it.  It was the only one I entered that used steeping grains, and it illustrates the importance of using real grains (and not just extracts) in gluten-free brewing.  I am more proud of this beer than anything I've ever brewed to date.  But I should note: it NEEDS aging; at three weeks in the bottle, it was BITTER as all get-out, a real tongue-splitter.  But two months in, it's got the depth and complexity of a varietal organic dark chocolate bar, and is very drinkable despite its high alcohol and bitterness.  One of the judges said that if this had been competing only against other gluten-free beers, it would have scored MUCH higher; rather, it was competing with Oakland's best homebrewers, who are doubtless some of the best in the nation, and the fact that it did so well is very encouraging!

Concluding thoughts:
Most of the beers I entered were extract-only, and their poor performance was a huge kick in the pants for me to get the hell away from syrups and sugars and figure out how to make it happen with grains.  The most common critique was either a lack of body or a syrupy "medicinal" taste, and I concur with that criticism.  My extract-based beers are almost always either too thin and dry, or too syrupy and cidery.  The area that needs the most improvement is the malt backbone.  Hence, I'm toning down the hop experimentation, and getting myself excited about mostly-grain brewing.  More thoughts and experiences to follow!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Temporary Set-Backs

It's been a while since my last update for a variety of reasons.  For one, my health has taken a (hopefully) temporary bad turn and I can't drink any alcohol until I'm better, which will hopefully be soon.  For two, I've had to dump four out of the last five batches I've brewed due to flavor issues, which was quite disheartening, and has left me feeling like maybe I shouldn't be giving advice until I figure out what went wrong.  I'll post a comprehensive analysis of my mistakes very soon, as I've learned an awful lot!  For three, I've been hard at work on a new album; I'm also a musician, working primarily solo in my home studio, and if you're curious, you can find my music at, as well as some older stuff at  This album should be completed in the next two weeks, and then I'll be able to put more time and energy into this blog.

Things I'll be covering in the next few entries:

  • Results of my entries into the homebrew contest at Oakland's "Eat Real Festival"—can my four best gluten-free beers stand up for themselves against the best glutenous homebrew Oakland has to offer?
  • Fusion styles: what happens when we approach naturally-gluten-free bevarages like cider, mead, and sake with a craft beer mindset?
  • Reviews of New Planet, Bard's, and Green's Dark Dubbel
  • Brewing all-grain gluten-free, without malting!
Stay tuned, I should be posting the next new entry early next week!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why is Brewing Gluten-Free Beer So Difficult?

Last night my girlfriend and I sat down to do a critical tasting of my eight best beers, and I have to say that the experience was both enlightening and disappointing.  Disappointing because I noted a strong similarity between almost all of my beers, and a few flaws common to almost all of them.  Enlightening because I realized that my process has to change, or I'm going to keep making mediocre beer.

So, why aren't my beers up to snuff, and why do they all share similar flaws?  For the same reason that most commercial gluten-free beer isn't any good: they're not made with grains!  Like most breweries here in the U.S. that make gluten-free beer, I've been relying on grain extracts and syrups, as well as honey, sugar, and candi syrup (a caramelized sugar product common in Belgian beers).  Some of my beers have used "steeping grains"—home-roasted grains steeped in the brewing liquid like a big tea-bag—and while that helps a bit, it doesn't do the job of adding the sort of complex maltiness that most beer-lovers expect.

Okay, I hear you saying, if the extract method sucks, why don't you just use grains?  Well, ultimately that is precisely what I intend to do, but it's not quite so simple.

The reason brewing gluten-free beer is hard is because the gluten-bearing grains found in beer—barley, wheat, rye, and oats—have a slew of unique properties that make them perfect for brewing, and these properties are not found to nearly the same extent in gluten-free grains.  Specifically, for a grain to be suitable for traditional brewing methods, it needs two things:

  1. Good Diastatic Enzymes: unmalted grains are mostly starch and protein.  When grains are malted ("malting" is just sprouting and then drying at specific temperatures), they produce enzymes, which in the presence of water and heat can turn the starch into sugar that the yeast can then eat and turn into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The quantity and quality of enzymes in a grain determines its diastatic power, "diastasis" meaning the process of breaking down starch into sugar.  Traditional brewing grains like wheat and barley and oats have excellent diastatic power, but grains like rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and millet are not so good.  They can still be used, but they need longer mashing times and are generally less efficient at producing a nice sweet brewing liquid for the yeast to ferment.
  2. Low Gelatinization (or Hydrolyzation) Temperature: this is probably the biggest problem.  Before a starch can be acted upon by the diastatic enzymes, it has to be hydrolyzed—liberated from the grain and made soluble in water.  This requires heat, and different grains have different temperatures at which their starches hydrolyze; this is known as their gelatinization temperature.  Now, the tricky thing is that the diastatic enzymes mentioned above have an optimal temperature range for doing their job—they work best between 145°F and 153°F.  If the temperature gets much higher, the enzymes get destroyed by the heat!  Lucky for barley, wheat, and rye, their gelatinization temperatures are just about the same exact range in which the enzymes work their best!  Unfortunately, most gluten-free grains are not so lucky, and do not gelatinize until heated above 170°F—just hot enough to denature whatever diastatic enzymes the grain might have.
So, what is a determined gluten-free brewer to do, when all of the grains available are biologically handicapped as far as traditional brewing methods are concerned?  My research has shown a few possibilities:
  1. Decantation (or Decoction) Mashing: basically, this is a more complex version of the typical infusion mash used by most brewers.  Instead of simply adding the grain to hot water at the optimal temperature and allowing to rest for about an hour while the enzymes do their work, this procedure involves stepping the grain-water mixture up through a few low-temperature rests, and then decanting off the enzyme-rich liquid, cooking the grains to gelatinize them, and then adding back in the enzyme-rich liquid to (hopefully) convert the now-soluble starches.  This is easy enough to do at home, but in a commercial brewery would require lots of specialized equipment.
  2. Prolonged Mash Schedule: like most things in nature, diastatic power and gelatinization temperature are not hard-and-fast quantities for grains, but represent the peak of the bell-curve.  It IS possible to get a portion of the grains to gelatinize at a lower temperature, but it takes a lot longer.  Thus it's conceivable that a prolonged mash at the high end of the optimal diastatic range could be effective for some grains.
  3. Supplementation of Enzymes: Why deal with the poor diastatic power of gluten-free grains and the tug-of-war between optimal gelatinization and optimal diastatic action, when you can just cook the grains, cool them, and add some chemically-isolated enzymes?  There are plenty of natural sources of diastatic enzymes, most notably the fungus Aspergillus oryzae, also known as koji and traditionally used in the brewing of sak√©, and it's possible to buy the isolated enzymes from brewing suppliers.  The tricky part is finding the right mix of enzymes—there are several that are important in brewing—and getting them to work consistently.  
Option 3 is the one I'm most drawn to as of now, because it allows the use of unmalted grains (although it's possible malted grains will end up with superior flavor, and may still be necessary anyway) and doesn't require a special procedure or special equipment in the commercial brewery, just a sort of "backward" mashing schedule where you start at a high temperature to cook the grains and then drop it through the various enzyme rests.  

However, my first few experiments haven't been terribly promising; I did 1-gallon trials of pure instant gluten-free oats as well as roasted buckwheat, and both came out extremely weak and watery.  There are many factors that could have caused this, though; for one, I lacked a grain mill to crack the grains, so perhaps got poor starch hydrolysis.  For two, I may not have cooked the grains long enough.  For three, oats and buckwheat might need a different enzyme mix than what I had.  I have lots of further experiments planned, and now that I can see extract is just not going to yield the results I want, my motivation is high.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Gluten-Reduced" Beers: The Bane of My Existence

This is becoming a problem.  First, there was Daura.  Then Omission.  Now there's Prairie Path.  Brewers around the world are jumping on the "gluten-reduced" beer bandwagon, and there hearts are in the right place—they want to brew a beer safe for the gluten-sensitive that tastes like, well, a real beer.  Unfortunately, their minds are in the wrong place, and they are using mistaken science.

Currently, the gold-standard tests are the ELISA tests, which work fine for detecting gluten in food.  However, gluten is a complex protein, made up of smaller amino acids, such as gliadin and hordein.  In the brewing process, these proteins are mostly broken down into their component amino acids during the protein rest—protease enzymes are a natural component of most grains, and are especially active in a certain temperature range (around 120°F, ±5°F); protein rests are important to most brewers to reduce haze in the beer.  Because of this, many beers—especially lighter-bodied highly-translucent styles—will actually give results of less than 20 PPM gluten.  However, this does NOT mean these beers are safe for those with gluten-sensitivity!

Gluten sensitivity is actually a constellation of several different pathologies, some of which are diagnosed exclusively by clinical presentation and dietary elimination.  Celiac sprue, the most well-known form of gluten-sensitivity (and the most severe), is an auto-immune disease that can be triggered by gluten, gliadin, and/or hordein (among other grain proteins).  Gluten intolerance, which presents similarly to lactose intolerance in terms of clinical signs and symptoms, can also be triggered by any of these proteins.  Wheat and barley allergies can be triggered by any number of compounds found in these grains, and present with allergy-type symptoms: intestinal inflammation, skin rashes, and occasionally anaphylactic shock.  Because of the massive variation in the gluten-sensitivity spectrum, it is impossible to determine a product's safety based on the absence of a single protein.

To make matters worse, a lot of people are mistakenly self-diagnosing gluten intolerance without the aid of doctor, based on benefits they experience doing a gluten-elimination diet (which typically means they are also reducing their carbohydrate intake and eating more consciously in general, which may be the real cause of their experienced benefits).  This means that among the self-described gluten-sensitive population, there is likely a significant portion that does not actually have one of the three main recognized forms of gluten sensitivity.

Now, here's the problem: the use of enzymes like Clarity-Ferm (Brewer's Clarex)—the enzyme used to produce these gluten-reduced beers—can successfully break down gluten, resulting in test results that would lead one to believe the beer is gluten-free.  However, other proteins, like hordein and gliadin, are NOT destroyed by this enzyme!  A recent study by Australian scientists used mass-spectrometry analysis (an expensive and thorough test NOT EMPLOYED by any purveyors of gluten-reduced beers, but also the only current test capable of detecting hordein or gliadin) on three types of beer: regular, gluten-reduced, and gluten-free (not brewed with gluten-containing grains).  What they found is that while many regular and gluten-reduced beers are indeed below 20 PPM in gluten, their hordein levels are still "substantial".  Only beers brewed without wheat and barley came out negative for hordein.

So, what does this mean for the gluten-free beer drinker?  It means that gluten-reduced beers may or may not be safe, depending on the exact nature of the drinker's sensitivity.  Many people report that gluten-reduced beers are acceptable and don't provoke a reaction; however, they are NOT universally-safe, and lots of people—myself included—do experience reactions to them.

"Well, okay," I hear you saying, "but they ARE safe for some people, so what's the problem?"  The problem is market share.  Most stores and establishments only carry a limited selection of gluten-free beers, and are beginning to show preference for gluten-reduced beers because they're "real beers with real beer taste", and are falsely marketed as being gluten-free.  These not-really-gluten-free beers are edging out the real McCoy in a lot of markets, and that's BAD.  Even here in the Bay Area, I've seen a few bars and stores switch from offering a real gluten-free beer like New Planet or Bard's to offering Daura or Omission.  The shop-keepers think they're offering their customers the best gluten-free beer available, but in reality they're offering a product that is not safe for many of their gluten-free customers.

For me, this means there are now fewer places I can go to buy and drink safe beer.  For gluten-free breweries in general, it means unfair competition.  The only solution is education; so please, share this post with anyone you know who is making beer, selling beer, or buying gluten-free beer!

For further reading, see also these wonderful posts from Aurochs Brewing:

Testing for Gluten in Food and Beer: a Not So Simple Science
Certified Gluten-Free: What Does That Mean?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review: St. Peter's Sorgham Beer

No, that's not a typo; they actually call it "Sorgham Beer", not "Sorghum Beer".  I have no idea why, but I know in the U.K. it's sold under the name "G-Free"; I like "Sorgham Beer" better than that, since it defines the product by what's in it, rather than what's not.

Appearance-wise, it looks pretty much like most other GF lagers out there: crystal-clear gold color with scarcely any head:

Taste-wise, it's one of the most frustratingly inconsistent beers on the market.  It's always good, but most times I've had it, I've found it to be a nice clean middle-of-the-road pilsener-style beer with moderate hop presence (more so than Redbridge or New Grist).  Clean being the operative word, kind of like a hoppier Redbridge, with a little bit of that herbal pilsener "stank" with a touch of citrus and tropical fruit.  Slight twang but overall a smooth, clean body.  Somewhat like a Heineken with a subtle American hop flavor.  After to New Planet's Off-Grid Pale, it's probably the hoppiest gluten-free beer I've tasted so far.  But that's not saying much; it's still a pretty middle-of-the-road beer, refreshing on a hot day but otherwise fairly unremarkable.

However, there was this one time when I pulled one out of the shadowy back of the shelf, and got a totally different beer—a beer that blew me away with its delicious hop flavor!  Strong floral, citrus, and tropical fruit notes with a delicious hop presence that's unmistakably amarillo (as mentioned on the bottle).  I could not get over how delicious it was!  Seriously, I was raving about it for days.  Unfortunately, I've been unable to replicate this experience, despite numerous subsequent efforts.  I suspect it has to do with the packaging: green glass bottles do not protect hop flavor as well as brown glass, and there's also the fact that it's an import that probably moves very slowly off store shelves (which means a long time for the hop oils to degrade and the beer to go stale).  It's also a possibility that it's not the packaging; I know St. Peter's has been brewing in the same facility for centuries, and they may still be using antiquated brewing practices (open stone fermenters, etc.), which naturally lend a bit of inconsistency to the finished product.

In any case, this inconsistency makes me reluctant to write a rigorous appearance/aroma/flavor evaluation—there's just too much variation.  That doesn't mean it's a bad beer; even in its average slightly-stale state, it's still the best GF lager on the market, in my opinion.  It's just annoying knowing how good it can be, but not being able to reliably obtain it in that state.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Recipe and Lesson: Genmaicha Blonde

I really like tea, and one of my favorite kinds of tea is Japanese genmaicha.  It's a toasty green tea with puffed roasted rice added, and when iced it makes a delightful summer quencher.  I figured it would go well in a beer, so I tried to come up with a nice blonde/cream ale recipe that would benefit from adding some genmaicha.  Rather than spending tons of money on actual nice genmaicha tea, I got some cheap matcha green tea and some kuro genmai—dark-roasted puffed brown rice—from a local Asian market.

Let me start off by saying this is not a recipe to be repeated, as I'm not happy with the result.  I'm posting it here 1) because I'm not by any means a master brewer and I still make bad beer on occasion, and 2) there are some great lessons to be learned from this recipe.  A modified recipe concludes the post, which should give better results if anyone wants to try brewing this.

Malt Bill:

  • 2 lbs toasted brown rice (kuro genmai, bought from an Asian market), steeped for 30 seconds at 150°F prior to boil
  • 2 lbs rice syrup solids, at 60 min
  • 1 lb sorghum liquid malt extract, at flame-out
  • 8 oz corn sugar, at 60 min
  • 8 oz wildflower honey, at flame out
Hop Schedule:
  • 0.75 oz U.S. Saaz pellets, 60 min (5.3% AA)
  • 0.5 oz U.S. Saaz pellets, 20 min
  • 1 oz Czech Saaz pellets (3.5% AA), 5 min
Other Additions:
  • 1.5 oz matcha powder (powdered green tea), during cool-down at ~170°F
  • 1 whirlfloc tablet, 15 min
Yeast: Fermentis Saflager S-23
Fermentation: 72°F ± 4°F (ambient), 2 weeks in primary, then bottled

Brewed 6/21/12
Tasted: today, 8/2/12
OG: 1.054
FG: 1.006
ABV: 6.4%
IBUs: 34.1 (Average)

Pictures of the process (tasting notes and lessons below):
My ingredients, and a bottle of homebrew
Steeping the toasted rice

The water immediately after steeping, no other malt or sugar yet added!

Adding matcha powder during cooling

The wort just added to the fermenter, after a vigorous aeration-shake
In the glass after 

Tasting Notes:

Aroma: very poor.  Earthy, roasty and kind of like…fertilizer? A duck pond?

Appearance: gold, hazy/cloudy, white head with strong head retention

Taste: strong roasty/toasty rice flavor, not chocolatey or coffee-like but almost burnt popcorn.  Is this the world's first blonde stout?  Very little hop aroma or presence, but a clean slightly spicy bitterness.  Mouthfeel is nice but a tad too thick.  Not much linger.  Some generic beery flavor underneath it all.  No green tea presence to speak of, sadly.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.  Easy drinker, but poor aroma, bad yeast flavor, lack of hop flavor, and overwhelming toastiness mean this beer really missed the mark.

Lessons learned: toasted rice should be used sparingly in a light beer and may be useful in a dark beer.  S-23 is not a good yeast at my typical ale temperatures (72°F and higher), there are some sulfury notes and a general "dirty" flavor.  Use twice as much green tea, or add to secondary—delicate flavor is easily lost!

Modified Recipe for Future Brewing:

Malt Bill:
  • 1/2 lb toasted brown rice, steeped for 30 seconds at 150°F prior to boil
  • 2 lbs rice syrup solids at 60 min
  • 1 lb sorghum LME at flame-out
  • 12 oz clover or sage honey at flame-out
Hop Schedule:
  • 0.75 oz Cascade (5.5%AA) at 60 min
  • 1.5 oz U.S. Saaz (5.3% AA) at 5 min
Other Additions:
  • 2 oz matcha powder (powdered green tea), brewed at 170°F and added to secondary for 7 days
  • 1 whirlfloc tablet, 15 min
Yeast: Fermentis Safale US-05

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: Harvester Brewing Co.

When I first heard about Harvester Brewing Co., I was very excited.  Probably more excited than I've been about any beer ever, except maybe Dogfish Head Tweason'ale.  Unlike most gluten-free breweries, Harvester brews their beers with a unique base of chestnuts, oats, cane sugar, and sorghum.  They're also located in Portland, OR, arguably the heart of the Pacific North West—a region of the U.S. famous among craft-beer connoisseurs for being the source of American hop innovations, and home to such craft beer heavies as Deschutes, Widmer Bros., Pyramid, Rogue, and Eel River.  Considering the caliber of their contemporaries, and the fact that I've been hearing rave reviews about chestnut-based gluten-free beers from my homebrewing peers, I had very high hopes for Harvester.

These hopes were only compounded by their unattainability: until recently, they were only available around the Portland metropolitan area.  However, they recently cut a deal with Let's Pour that gave them online distribution to several U.S. states, and California is one of 'em—so finally, after months of tracking their progress on Facebook and Beer Advocate, I was able to order 12 bottles of Harvester beer: 4 pales, 4 reds, 2 darks, and 2 raspberries (the IPA hadn't yet launched at the time of my order).  Not a moment too soon, either, as I was earnestly contemplating taking a weekend drive up to Portland just to see what the hype was all about!

Left to Right: Harvester Dark, Raspberry, Red, and Pale Ales

Well, thank goodness I didn't make the trip, because this beer would not have been worth it.  I'm very, very, VERY sad to say that these were the worst gluten-free beer I've EVER had, notwithstanding a few of my own failed homebrew experiments (yeah, my two gruits and my first root-beer porter were worse, definitely...but not by a lot!).  All four of these pints went down the drain unfinished, and it was unanimously agreed among the four of us present (myself, my girlfriend, and two of her friends) that these beers just weren't drinkable.

All of their beers had a few problems in common: they were starchy and dry, with an unusual "roasted cashew" taste that in the darker ales was more like "singed hair" or "tobacco ash".  Hop character was weak across the board, with only the Raspberry presenting some good hop aroma and balance between sweet and bitter flavors.  All of them left a weird film in the mouth.  None could be described as "refreshing", "drinkable", or "quenching"—which, say what you will about other GF beers, most of them are at least good on a hot day!  Also, and I know this isn't really taste-related, but Harvester could really use a better graphic design team.  Their labels just look unprofessional.  Really, guys—I've seen homebrewers with classier labels.  It's okay to be minimal and monochrome—see Omission, for instance—but you gotta do it elegantly.  A grayscale clip-art picture of a tractor with sloppy and uneven lettering doesn't exactly make your product look appealing—especially when the price tag is $9 per bottle!

Here's the blow-by-blow breakdown of each beer:

Harvester Dark Ale:

Appearance: somewhat reminiscent of Newcastle—more of a brown ale than a stout or porter.  Thin head that fades quickly, and though you can't see it here, it had an odd yellow/green tinge to it.

Aroma: buttery chocolate, toffee/coffee, smooth roastiness—very nice.

Taste: very unpleasant, a sad surprise after the nice aroma.  Smoky burnt plastic taste.  Strong flavor of burnt toast, or like licking a dirty grill.  No hop character.  Slight espresso-ground flavor beneath the familiar acrid sorghum twang.  Thin body.  Elicited involuntary facial expressions of disgust among most of us on first tasting.

Rating: 1 out of 5.  Probably the worst beer I've ever had.  What a bummer!  It held such promise!

Harvester Raspberry Experiment-Ale:

Appearance: ever so slightly lighter than the dark ale, with more carbonation and a whiter head

Aroma: noble-hop floral spice, nuttiness, slight toastiness, very slight fruit

Taste: like a PB&J.  Fruitiness and nuttiness up front, backed by a toasty breadiness.  Not chocolaty like the red, but still somewhat toasty.  Again with the unpleasant earthy/tobacco finish.  The fruit does add a combination of sweet and sourness that helps to mask the sorghum twang, and the hops actually come through with a nice floral character.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  The most drinkable of the bunch, but still could not make it through a pint.  Comparable to New Planet's 3R Raspberry Ale, but the latter is more quaffable.  This one is more of a substantial sippin' beer.

Harvester Red:

Appearance: nearly identical with the Raspberry, only the head (which is more tan) sets it apart.

Aroma: nutty, toasty, chocolaty.  Some caramel.  Like a Hershey's chocolate bar with almonds.

Taste: Toasty with bitter chocolate up front, but with a fairly thin body.  Strong sorghum acridness/"twang".  Mild, clean bitterness, weak hop character.  Very dry and starchy, lacking sweetness and maltiness.  Ends with an earthy/ashy slight tobacco character.

Rating: 2 out of 5.  Better warm than cold, but overall not what you'd expect in a red ale.  Might grow on me given time, but as it stands, it's hard to want to finish a glass of it.

Harvester Pale:

Appearance: like a light lager, crystal-clear, yellow, white fizzy head with poor retention.

Aroma: spicy/herbal, like a pilsner...a little soapy, slight hint of citrus

Taste: a soapy bitterness up front, with a very dry and nutty body, slight hint of tobacco.  Very slight fruitiness and mintiness that becomes apparent as it warms—it's definitely better warm.  Slick, starchy, full mouth-feel.  No maltiness or sweetness.  Generic bland/neutral bitterness, very slight spiciness.  Overall quite bland.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  I don't think I'd call this a pale ale, certainly not in the tradition of the great North-Western breweries.  It's much closer to a very dry blonde ale.  It's almost drinkable once it warms up, but the starchy dryness and lack of malt sweetness to balance the hop bitterness makes this an unbalanced beer.

In Closing:

All in all, I blew $100 on beer that's mostly going down the drain (unless anyone in the Bay Area wants to take the last four bottles—two pale and two red—off my hands).  But, I saved a trip to Oregon (which would have been probably more like $500 or $600 at the bare minimum), so I don't consider it a huge loss.

In any case, I'm sorry to the folks at Harvester for giving them such a bad review.  I really, really, REALLY wanted this beer to be mind-blowingly good, I even DREAMT about tasting this beer before I was able to get my hands on it!  If you guys are reading this, I really want you to do better.  You clearly care about your product, and it's possible that your QA just isn't up to snuff yet and I just got a bad batch.  I don't know; I'll order again next year and give another review.  What I do know is, the beer I had isn't living up to the hype, and it isn't as good as your competitors.  New Planet's got you licked on the pale ale and raspberry ale fronts, and Green's has you beat by a long shot on the dark and red/amber categories.  Step it up!  Everyone hates to see an underdog fail.

In the meantime, to my readers: save your money, don't order a 12-pack of this stuff without tasting it first.  If you live in the Portland area, stop by their brewery for a tasting, and keep checking back; they're a young brewery and seem to have a lot of innovative ideas—and some real craft-brewing spirit—so I fully expect them to step it up in due time.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why is Gluten-Free Beer So Boring?

At this point, I've sampled every gluten-free (and gluten-reduced) beer available on the West Coast: Harvester, Green's, New Planet, Bard's, New Grist, Redbridge, St. Peter's Sorgham, Dogfish Head Tweason'ale, Omission, and Estrella Damm Daura (more in-depth reviews of each coming).  While some are definitely better than others, I am sad to say that in general, gluten-free beer sucks.  The majority of beers are light lagers or blonde/pale ales, i.e. middle-of-the-road basic session beers presumably meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator of beer drinkers.  Even the gluten-reduced offerings (which are definitely NOT gluten-free, at least according to my intestines) are weak and flavorless.  Green's and Harvester are the only breweries even attempting to make darker and higher-ABV beers, but their results are mixed and (I'm sad to say) not terribly impressive.  The best that I can say of any gluten-free beer is that it's drinkable and refreshing, and I can't even say that about all of them.  So what gives?

To be honest, I'm not sure why the state of things is so grim.  If I wasn't a gluten-free brewer myself, I'd be tempted to just assume gluten-free beer is impossible to brew well, but even as a total amateur brewing experimental recipes of my own devising, I am already doing better than nearly every commercial brewery.  So it's not an inherent limitation of the ingredients; rather, it seems to be a limitation in the minds of the brewers.

The biggest shortcoming of every gluten-free beer I've ever tasted (save for the Deschutes NWPA, which is not available commercially) is the lack of good hop flavor.  I've heard the line from a few different brewers that sorghum doesn't stand up to heavy hopping the way barley does, but that's a bald-faced lie.  Citrusy hops, like the American staples of Cascade, Centennial, CTZ, and Chinook (to say nothing of the newer Amarillo and Citra), play very nicely with the tartness of sorghum, and actually help to blend and mask it.  My first IPA (recipe to follow), which used a hefty blend of Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus, as well as actual grapefruit zest, was a roaring success among all who tasted it.  I've since brewed high-ABV double IPAs with high-alpha hop varieties like Chinook, Simcoe, and Super-Alpha, with IBUs up to 80, and I can now say without hesitation that in gluten-free beers—which just CAN'T be carried by malt flavor—more hop flavor is better.

I'm also completely bewildered at the dearth of dark beers.  Dark beers, and stouts in particular, get much of their flavor from roasted grains, and while pale malt flavor is very unique to barley, almost ANY grain when roasted will impart nearly-identical flavors.  Roasted GF oats, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, and chestnuts all add flavors nearly identical with roasted barley.  And there's this stuff called candi syrup, available in three different shades of roast (and which is easy to make at home with just sugar, water, and DAP yeast nutrient) that is excellent at imparting the requisite notes of toffee, caramel, chocolate, dark fruit, and coffee that one expects in dark beers—and it even contributes a bit of lingering sweetness from unfermentable sugars that helps to balance the roastiness.  Add a touch of molasses and some maltodextrin for extra body, and BAM—a convincing dark beer is a slam dunk!  In all honesty, I've found dark beers to be actually EASIER to brew convincingly to style because of the availability of these ingredients.

Lastly, I just don't understand why more breweries aren't taking some more risks with the addition of fruits, herbs, and spices.  So many breweries seem to be trying to give gluten-free drinkers a comforting clone of a mass-market beer, but why settle for an unconvincing imitation?  These beers tend to land in a sort of "uncanny valley", where they taste enough like a familiar beer to be of obvious comparison, but different enough to be disappointing.  Just accept it, guys: gluten-free beer is going to taste different.  Different can be good!  The craft beer spectrum is almost incomprehensibly broad, and non-GF brewers seem to be in a constant arms race of innovation—from excavating ancient tombs for historical recipes, to pushing the limits of hoppiness and alcohol content with big "imperial" ales, to hybridizing traditional styles to make things like white IPAs, black pilsners, and imperial red ales.  Get with it, gluten-free brewers!  Exotic flavors are your friends!  If you can come up with some really incredible beer that's unlike anything anyone's ever tasted, you might even rope in some adventurous non-GF drinkers.  I try to make at least one out of every four of my beers something that I've never heard of before—chamomile-lime IPA?  Carrot-juniper pale ale?  Beet-buckwheat russian imperial stout?  Genmaicha pilsner?  Rose blonde?  Life's too short to drink (or brew) the same old beer!

Seriously, the gluten-free brewing industry doesn't need any more "session" beers.  Step up the game, because SOMEONE who understands what beer drinkers want is gonna pop up soon and steal your market share.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

No-Nonsense Oatmeal Stout

Today I'd like to share my most successful recipe to date: my "No-Nonsense Oatmeal Stout".  It's my second attempt at brewing a gluten-free dark beer (my first one really missed the mark, but that's a tale for another day), and I am extremely satisfied with it.  As you can see, it definitely nails the appearance:

As the name suggests, the recipe is a simple one.  I always brew in 3-gallon batches, because I consider this to be experimentation/product development and it just takes me too long to drink 5 gallons of anything, so here's the 3-gallon recipe (with links to where you can buy the ingredients online):

Malt Bill:

Hop Schedule:

Yeast: Safale S-04 English Ale Dry Yeast

Measured OG: 1.060
Measured FG: 1.012
ABV: 6.4%
IBUs: 36.4 (used "Average" calculation formula)

The most involved part of the recipe is toasting the oats.  I toasted them wet, which I've found gives a breadier and mellower flavor to toasted grains.  Simply pour the oats in a bowl, pour in enough warm water to cover, then let stand until the water is absorbed.  Spread on a cookie sheet, and toast in an oven heated to 350°F until they turn to a chocolate color.  This took me about an hour, but YMMV.  Make sure to stir frequently!  And watch the edges, they darken faster than the rest.

The finished beer reminds me a bit of a Deschutes Obsidian Stout.  It's dark and chocolaty with some notes of dark fruit and roast coffee, a nice thick body and a pleasant hop bitterness.  The sorghum adds a bit of a metallic taste that reminds me a bit of Guinness.  It's very drinkable, lighter than most oatmeal stouts and just a touch more acidic.  It could use just a little bit of refining, but it's quite close to something I'd consider marketable.

Check in a few months from now for a report on its big brother, my Omega Red Russian Imperial Stout, brewed with rice syrup, toasted buckwheat and beets(!), with Willamette and Columbus hops.  It's in secondary fermentation at time of this writing, and tastings of hydrometer samples have so far been extremely promising.

Edit: the Omega Red came out FANTASTIC.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A "Few" Words About Your Humble Narrator

I haven't always been gluten-free.  Like many people, my gluten intolerance developed in early adulthood for apparently-mysterious reasons.  I've always had a bit of a sensitive stomach, but I spent my formative years happily eating like a normal person, indulging in plenty of bread, pizza, pasta, fried chicken, and starting around high school age, beer.  In the fall of 2007, when I was 24 years old, I began to suffer from symptoms that resembled IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).  The onset was gradual, but by early 2008 I could tell that there was something seriously wrong.  I was chugging Pepto-Bismol by the bottle (to no avail), and trying all manner of alternative digestive remedies: homeopathics, Chinese herbal formulas, ginger, mint, chamomile, yogurt, kombucha, name it!  Yet no matter what I tried, nothing seemed to work.  I even tried eliminating dairy and soy, but still no relief.

Many years prior, when I was still in high school, my father began suffering from ulcerative colitis.  His condition was very severe and did not respond well to medication.  He finally found relief from diet therapy—he became a strict adherent to the "blood type diet", specifically the O blood type, which restricted grain and starch intake and specifically prohibited gluten.  Now, my blood is type A, and the blood type diet for A's does not specifically prohibit gluten, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway, since I knew it had to be something I was eating and my other elimination diets hadn't given me any relief.  I did two weeks off gluten and felt profound relief, and when I attempted to reintroduce it, my symptoms came back just about instantly, and even worse than before.  I considered this to be clear evidence, and after several relapses in subsequent years due to unknowingly ingesting gluten (which I later confirmed after the return of symptoms), I can say with solid confidence that I have a gluten intolerance.

This discovery was simultaneously a profound relief and a serious bummer.  It was a relief because my digestion was finally back to normal, but a bummer because most of my favorite foods (and drinks!) were made with gluten-containing ingredients.  I adapted pretty well to eating rice-based pasta and breads—they got the job done, even if they weren't great—but the dearth of gluten-free beer was a major downer.  In the three and a half years between reaching legal drinking age and discovering my gluten intolerance, I had become a serious beer geek, even venturing into homebrewing to attempt to create styles even more off-the-wall than what I could get at the store.  I prided myself in my encyclopedic knowledge of beer styles and brewing techniques, historical brewing trivia, and traditional ethnic fermented beverages from around the world.  Most of my friends shared in my beer-geekdom, and we reveled in helping each other discover unique new brews.  And suddenly, it was all off-limits.

I spent the first few years of my gluten-free life trying to acquire tastes for wine, cider, hard liquor, and mead, but I truly missed the variety and depth of beer.  I tried to make do with the meager commercial offerings—in 2008 here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there was a grand total of four or maybe five options, of which at least three were light BMC-style beers—but it wasn't much fun.  Gluten-free beers are expensive, and generally inferior in quality to similarly-priced regular beers, as many of you reading this probably know.  Truly, the situation looked grim.

Until one day in late 2011, when my girlfriend Lizzie decided she wanted to try her hand at homebrewing some mead.  She managed to talk me into taking her to Oak Barrel Winecraft, the LHBS that serves the East Bay Area, and we bought a new homebrewing starter kit (my old setup from my gluten-consuming days had been lost years ago in one of my several moves) and promptly brewed up 3 gallons of mead.  This managed to kick-start my interest in homebrewing, and I decided that rather than whine about the sad state of commercial gluten-free beer, I was going to try to make something different and better.  Thus began a zealous quest to find the secret to brewing gluten-free beer that could rival the best barley-based beers I used to savor.

I'm happy to report that, after a few false starts and confused meanderings, I've succeeded at brewing gluten-free beer in impossible-to-find styles, such as imperial IPAs, stouts, and a host of unique herb-, fruit-, and spice-based specialty beers.  I'm slowly honing in on some unique recipes, and if all goes according to plan I may even open a microbrewery in the next few years.  In the meantime, I'll be blogging up a storm about both my own exploits in the homebrewery as well as product reviews of the current crop of commercial gluten-free offerings.  It's never been a better time to be a gluten-free beer drinker, and mark my words: it's only going to get better!

Review: Green's Quest Triple Blonde Ale

Green's is a British gluten-free brewing company with a Belgium-based brewery, and they've been in business for quite some time.  They have three beers available in the U.S. and Canada: Quest, the Blonde Triple that is the subject of this review; Endeavor, a dark Belgian dubbel that is the closest thing to a gluten-free stout on the market; and Discovery, an amber ale.  Note: their European offerings are completely different from their North American offerings, being based on de-glutenized barley (which the U.S. TTB does not recognize as gluten-free) 

From their site:

Green's Beers have been brewed in Lochristi, Belgium at the highly-respected DeProef Brewery since 2004. Inspired by strong European beers and developed to a closely guarded secret recipe, these specialty beers are brewed with a full body, crisp taste and a refreshing flavor, losing none of the taste but all of the allergens. Green's Beers are suitable for both Vegetarian and Vegan diets. They have a full five-year shelf life due to bottle-conditioning with an authentic Belgian yeast.

Green's Beers DO NOT contain any of the following allergens or products thereof: Gluten, Crustaceans, Eggs, Fish, Peanuts, Soybeans, Milk, Lactose, Nuts, Celery, Mustard, Sesame seeds, Sulfur dioxide nor Sulfites.

I first tried a Green's even before I developed a gluten intolerance, just because I was curious about beer brewed with alternative grains.  Once I went gluten-free, I developed an even deeper appreciation for them, as they offer styles completely unrepresented by any American gluten-free brewery.

My official take on the Quest Triple Blonde ale:

Vital Statistics: 8.5% ABV, 32 IBU's

Appearance: pours a deep hazy gold, with a fizzy white head that settles quickly to nicely persistent lacing.  Completely appropriate for the style.  See for yourself:

Aroma: tart and sour, notes of green apple, sweet bubblegum, and a subtle metallic tingle.

Flavor and Body: instantly reminiscent of classic Belgian-style Triples like La Fin Du Monde.  A tart sour bite initially with strong bubblegum and green apple that mellows quickly to a grainy sweetness.  There is a slight garlicky funk that's very subtle, and a slight spice, possibly from the hops (the ingredient list does not mention any spices or herbs).  Noticeable alcoholic warmth, as expected from the 8.5% ABV, but not too hot or overbearing. The taste fades quickly, leaving a ghost of a metallic twang.  Nicely full-bodied with a smooth velvety effervescence; absolutely style-appropriate.

General Thoughts: unlike most gluten-free beers, this one could definitely pass as a regular Belgian blonde triple.  It's definitely in league with La Fin Du Monde, which used to be one of my favorite beers.  I'd say it's a great beer for a cool autumn day, but it's a bit too warming and tart for a hot summer day.  More warming than refreshing.  All in all, a very successful gluten-free beer.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Welcome to Brewing Beyond Barley!  If you are interested in delicious and adventurous craft-brewed beer that eschews such familiar grains as barley, wheat, and rye, you have come to the right place!

Here you will find a growing collection of reviews, interviews, tips, tricks, and techniques related to what is often called "gluten-free" brewing.  As a gluten-intolerant brewer myself, I try to avoid describing the beers I make and drink as "gluten-free", for while that label is useful for helping other gluten-intolerant folks find safe beverages, it says nothing about what the beverages are actually like.  Unlike in pizza dough or french bread, gluten contributes nothing to the quality and flavor of beer, and there is no limit to what can be achieved qualitatively or stylistically with non-glutenous brewing ingredients.  While it can certainly be argued that it is not possible to replicate the flavors of wheat, barley, and rye with non-glutenous grains, that does not mean that delicious, exciting, adventurous beers cannot be brewed with different grains.

Some grains, like corn, rice, sorghum, and millet, have rich histories in the traditional fermented beverages of non-Western cultures, and are ripe for cross-over into the Western brewing world.  Other non-grain ingredients, like buckwheat, sweet potato, various sugars, fruits, and even vegetables like carrots and beets, have much to offer in terms of exciting new flavors that can surprise even the most worldly of beer connoisseurs.

However, this can be a double-edged sword for inexperienced or traditional brewers, as tried-and-true barley-based techniques either fail catastrophically or achieve subpar results.  There is vast room for research and growth in this field—it is truly the bleeding-edge of brewing, free of guidelines, traditions, and expectations.  There is little to no institutional support, and very few commercial examples leading the way; even finding ingredient suppliers is often difficult for the homebrewer.  But the field is growing, and I predict that in the next decade we will see exponential growth in the quality and quantity of gluten-free beer, in both the homebrew world and the commercial brewing world.  Brewing Beyond Barley will be keeping tabs on these advances, and perhaps even bringing some of them about, so check back often!