“I don’t like beer.” A dagger to the heart, but understandable when coming from someone with celiac disease. Having an autoimmune disease that allows gluten to damage the small intestine creates a reasonable enough barrier between beer and the drinker. When it comes to the available options for the gluten-intolerant…heck, I’ve tried some gluten-free beers in the past and thought I was sick. Brewmaster Trevor Easton of Alt Brew points out the main reason for the stigma is the overuse of sorghum. “A lot of the gulten-free beers had a huge sorghum punch to them.” As Chad & Jeremy wrote, “But that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone.”
A handful of breweries are going against the grain to prove gluten-free beer doesn’t have to be a second cousin once forcibly removed from the houses of Ale and Lager. One such brewery is located right here in Madison, and it only took one visit to completely change my perception. I don’t normally do plugs for breweries, but Alt Brew, located between Karben4 and Ale Asylum, is unique enough that I feel it necessary to call out by name and note that it’s one of the best gluten-free breweries in the nation.
Before we get into that, rewind. I want to talk about what it is I look for in a beer and how I determine what’s good and what’s lacking. Everyone has their opinions on what beers taste bad, and I can accept that someone doesn’t like a style of beer. But I can’t find it in me to believe that a beer that’s well rounded and achieves a high degree of balance isn’t objectively better than a beer that doesn’t.
When I drink a beer, I have two things in mind: what is the style and what was the brewer’s objective. If it’s a Saison, I’m looking for some fruity and spicy notes as I determine if those accents are presented in a way that doesn’t sacrifice flavor for gimmicks. But that’s not the fun part. Usually the name of a beer can give a clue as to what the brewer wanted to achieve. The description on the packaging can fill in some blanks as well. Perhaps the brewer wanted to go full on traditional, which sets the bar high considering there are going to be a lot of other breweries putting out that same beer. Not only will an off note be much more prominent, but all the anticipated flavors should come clean and play nice with one another.
Then there are those beers that try to feather the hops a bit. They stretch the definition of the style by presenting flavors in a peculiar fashion. An example of this might include someone making a Saison that tries to play up a fruity characteristic along with the peppery notes associated with Saison yeast strains. In addition, they want that dry tang at the end to feel like a natural consequence of the fruit they chose to include. I’m thinking raisin.
With that in mind, time to discuss these gluten-free beers. Paraphrasing Trevor, a good gluten-free beer lets the yeast and hops drive the flavor. I had to do a hard reset of everything I expected.
I started with Alt Brew’s Kölsch. It was different. There were citrus notes playing with that yeast flavor, and I didn’t find that anticipated crispness. This is not a fault of Trevor’s, but him making the style work within the limitations of gluten free. The result was a beer that seems to toe the line of malt beverage, but remained distinctly beer. Unlike gluten-free beers I’ve had in the past, this was something I could recommend to pretty much anyone, if not for anything but the experience.
I moved on to the Blonde IPA. The trick for Trevor here was making a fermentable base that, again, isn’t all sorghum. Honey does the trick, as it has been doing in mead for centuries. Expecting that hoppy flavor associated with IPAs, I took my first taste. With the yeast in the foreground, I pull out something reminiscent of the bitterness generally derived from malts. That uniqueness starts to settle in, and the ensuing drinks really start to take on the aromatics of the hops as an easy-to-drink IPA emerges.
Taking in these beers as I ramble on in an attempt to collect my thoughts, Trevor drops some wisdom on the situation. “One of the things we really try to focus on is making a craft beer that happens to be gluten free, as opposed to ‘let’s make a gluten-free beer.’” This is something that more brewers should be imparting in all styles. Make the beer you want to make, and don’t worry so much about what umbrella it sits under. Then Trevor tells me something I’d never considered. Using sorghum can make a beer big when used as an adjunct, giving a little bit of a scotch flavor.
Nodding along, genuinely intrigued, I tried their Copper Ale.
A lot of roasted millet. A crystal red. A chocolate roast. All these pull out this darker, malty, roasted beer, which balances surprisingly well with the yeast. It’s like a roasted amber Saison. Just an incredible beer that speaks to the complexity inherent in the malt bill while taming the yeast to a quieter note. It’s not that this is a good gluten-free beer, it’s a solid beer overall.
For too long, the gift of beer has been out of reach for the gluten-intolerant, but those days are long gone. Considering we’re at the cusp of the holiday season, pick up an Alt Brew for your friend with celiac and any one of your beer-drinking friends. We are living in the future, where access to taste is abundant to all dietary restrictions.
To trying new things
Not because they are easy
But because they are delicious
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Trevor’s recommended Gluten-Free Breweries
Burning Brothers Brewing
St. Paul, Minnesota
Ground Breaker Brewing
Ghostfish Brewing Company
Be sure to try Alt Brew’s Copperhead Copper Ale along with the rest of their unique lineup.