GF beer: general background


When the news arrived that TGW had celiac, I had been finalizing plans to brew another batch of beer. So I scrapped that idea and instead I will to learn to make GF beer. TGW encouraged me to share my experience with her readership, so here goes.

In order to make my posts on my process as enlightening as possible, I’ll start with a preliminary post for the lay folk, giving an overview of beer components (gluten and not). In subsequent posts I’ll start describing my actual experiences, assuming familiarity with the brewing process (e.g., as described below).

The main question I hope to answer in this post is: What is beer? Included is a detailed but down-to-earth description of the beer-making process. Then, I’ll give a brief overview of how the process must change when brewing gluten-free.

What is beer?

The short answer: Beer is fermented malt beverage, and in European tradition barley is usually the dominant malted grain component.

The long answer: There are exceptions to any rule about beer, just like in any human process, but what follows is a description of how most beer is made, starting from square one.

  1. The raw input is grain, generally barley. In industrial settings, corn and rice are also used. The grain is malted, which means moistened, kept warm, and allowed to germinate slightly. Then it is dried or roasted to kill of the living plant. (The main effect is that the baby plant produces enzymes with the power to break the starch reserves in the seed down into usable food.)
  2. A tea is made from the malt, called the mash. By steeping the grains in water at specific temperatures, the enzymes are activated and the sugars are cut down from big chunks (polymers) into various little ones (monomers and dimers). (The main effect is that some of these little sugars, though not all of them, are now in a form that the yeast find edible.)
  3. By the way, many homebrewers do not execute the preceding steps themselves. Instead they simply buy malt extract (in liquid or powder form) from their local homebrew supply store. This simply consists of a professionally made mash, concentrated (and perhaps dried) and conveniently packaged. Using extract, one simply needs a large pot (and a fermenter; see below) to make beer. Otherwise, one usually buys the malt rather than making it, but the mashing process requires a good amount more equipment and hence storage space. On the upside, by mashing yourself you gain considerably more control over your product.
  4. The finished tea is boiled for around an hour. The result is called the wort (pronounced “wert”). One effect of the boil is to destroy the enzymes so that they do no more work than we want. Perhaps more importantly, boiling sterilizes the wort. During the boil, a dried flower called hops is typically added, contributing both bitterness and aroma. (The adding of hops is more complicated than this: different varieties of hops are added at different time increments of the boil. Those added earlier contribute bitterness but not aroma, and those added at the end of the boil contribute aroma but not bitterness.)
  5. The wort is cooled, and brewer’s yeast is added. Since every single little goddamned thing needs its own specialized term, to make outsiders look foolish when they try to talk about it but don’t know the lingo, the process of emptying a packet of yeast into the liquid is called pitching the yeast. It is extremely important that the liquid is kept sterile, because the wort is great for growing bacteria in, and if they get a foothold in the ecosystem first they’ll kill your yeast and destroy your batch. Also, if your wort is too hot it’ll kill the yeast, and if it’s too cold the yeast might not get to work very eagerly.
  6. The yeast-laden wort is placed in a sealed fermentation vessel (a fermenter), with some sort of an air trap or valve to let gas escape, and fermentation ensues. The yeast enter a veritable orgy, eating sugars, multiplying, and excreting alcohol, CO2 and flavorful chemicals. When the food runs out, they get sleepy, sink to the bottom of the vessel (or sometimes rise to the top), and enter increasing stages of dormancy leading to death. At this point the beer might be considered finished, or it might not be: the brewer may choose to transfer the beer to a secondary fermenter, which is just a clean new fermentation vessel, all the while carefully separating the liquid from any sediment or gunk. (This allows any remaining yeast to squeeze out any remaining edible sugars without the presence of dead yeast cells, hop flower crums, or chemical gunk from the grain.) And/or, the brewer could store the beer at cool temperatures (conditioning) or at cold ones (lagering) for a period to mellow out the flavors. The fermentation process can take anywhere from 4 to 14 days, and storage lasts anywhere from an extra week to years.
  7. The beer, as it now rightfully should be called, is carbonated and bottled. Remember that during fermentation the CO2 was allowed to escape, so the beer at this point is actually flat. In an industrial setting (as well as in a sophisticated home setting), gas is redissolved into it before bottling and/or kegging. Most homebrewers simply add a wee bit more pure corn sugar and then quickly bottle the beer; the sugar is all efficiently edible by the yeast, and is turned straight into CO2 in the bottle, thus carbonating it. This process can take one to four weeks. Some beers age well in the bottle, gaining a smooth mellowness and/or more complex flavors (the latter through the yeast finding more and more creative ways to eat random chemicals left in your beer before they give up and die) over the course of one to ten years.

In the most extremely refined industrial settings, large amounts of corn, rice, or other sources of carbohydrates replace barley. (Anything that is not like barley that is used in beer is called an adjunct.) When used in relatively small quantities, these can be quite harmless to the quality of your beer. But when used too liberally, they can be responsible for a good amount of the “ass” flavor that can be found in, say Miller High Life Light.

Gluten-free brewing

The major problem the gluten-free brewer has to deal with, assuming the European model above, is how to replace the barley. One cannot simply use readily-available corn and rice, because these typically produce ass beer. Rather, one will necessarily be forced to do some hunting for their sugar and flavor base. The possible solutions depend largely on whether the brewer mashes on their own, or uses malt extract.

  • If the brewer performs a mash, then the solution is as follows: you just need to find a source for one gluten-free grain that can supply enzymes (as not all can). If this is the case, then you can make a beer predominantly from any gluten-free grain. Basically, perform a two-step mash, with the first step working only on the enzyme-rich grain to get the enzymes awake and active, and the adding your primary grain in the second step so that the enzymes go to town on it. Now you have your wort.
  • If the brewer uses extract, then they are up a creek unless they can find some gluten-free extract. Unfortunately, even if you do find some, the extract will dominate the character of your beer. You will have to design your flavors to accommodate it, even if this displeases you. In any case, the way you try to modify the flavor is to find some gluten-free grain and steep it in water with the extract. If this other grain has a distinctive enough flavor, it will try to tango with your extract. How much freedom this gives you, I don’t know yet.

In either case, since there seems to be no hub for experience brewing with gluten-free grains, there must be a lot of trial-and-error, and there will be some frustration due to the rather inhomogeneous availability of the different gluten-free options.

What grains would the gluten-free brewer use, if not corn or rice? So far, I’ve heard of brewers using sorghum, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, and tapioca in the mash, and I’ve also heard of tapioca liquid malt extract. (I’ve heard of someone making an all-oat beer, then a variant with some quinoa added to improve the flavor, but oats are of course hotly debated as a gluten-free grain, so I’ll avoid any more mention of them.) As I start brewing, which of these I end up using will depend on which are available to me.


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4 Responses to “GF beer: general background”

  1. GF beer: visit to the homebew store « The Glutonic Woman Says:

    […] The Glutonic Woman Fighting gluten intolerance for celiacs in Boston and beyond « GF beer: general background […]

  2. bigRahn Says:

    I suppose that aptly describes rice and corn beer, which I so happily gave up drinking a long time ago.
    When I tried to do some home brewing a few years ago, the term “pitching” really threw me off. I thought I had to dump the yeast in by throwing it fast, but that didn’t work too well. Ooh well.

    Good luck. Can’t wait to hear how it turns out.

  3. mb Says:

    Thanks for the comment on my blog! Good luck in the blogging world too! Here are a couple of references for GF home brew you may want to check:

    Fresh Ginger – look on the right sidebar near the bottom
    Aprovechar – read the text and leave a comment. She and her husband are happy to share

  4. The Glutonic Woman Says:

    Thanks for the links, mb! These are definitely helpful.

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