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