Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gluten-free Real Ale

One of the SFTP reviewers was diagnosed with Coeliac disease a few months ago, which at first led to much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair that she was never going to be able to drink real ale again. The challenge raised, we gathered together and have now sourced half a dozen brewers in the UK who produce at least one gluten-free real ale, plus myriad others in the USA and around the world. The landscape looks pretty promising, so far (but we'd appreciate more suggestions or comments in this GoogleDoc).

Last night we had a tasting of the first few beers we've been able to track down, and our notes and comments follow below.

Dogfish Head, Tweason'ale: It seems a bit odd to me that this impressive, dependable Delaware craft brewer would choose to make their first foray into gluten-free ale (catering for an audience who already have a very small range available to them) such a niche style, but that's just what Dogfish Head have done with Tweason'ale, a candy-sweet strawberry and honey beer. Hard to see many people turning to this in delight when they thought they'd had to give up IPAs and bitters and stouts, really. It comes in a very pretty bottle, with a charming (others said "silly") half-bee/half-strawberry character, representing the two dominant flavors in this fruity-style ale. A very light, sparkly and cloudy orange beer, that smells like dry fruit-candy, a little dusty with a strong alcoholic head. The very tart first taste, sweaty like slightly stale red fruit, more aggressive in the mouth, with some cherry liqueur in the swallow, but no bitterness or hops detectable. We were more or less evenly split between people who like fruitbier and those who never touch the stuff, but pretty much everyone was agreed that we wouldn't come back to Tweason'ale voluntarily under any circumstances. *

Glebe Farm, Night Mission: Glebe Farm in Cambridgeshire specialises in gluten-free products, from cereals and breads, to snacks and baking ingredients, and recently branched out into brewing as well. Their ethos seems to be that you shouldn't be able to taste the absence of wheat or gluten in their products, and that has certainly worked out in their first real ale offering, which was one of the favorites of the night. A light, cloudy yellow beer with cheeky bubbles, the first smell of the head of this one is wildflower honey and heather. It's a bit sharp and sparkly on the tip of the tongue, followed by a tidal wave of honey all through the mouth, but beautifully bitter and sappy on the swallow. Hints of bay or lime leaf and green wood linger, with a little rusty iron; quite complex, not especially hoppy, but really lovely. This was both Charlotte's and Valeria's favorite beer. I'm going to get a few more of these in. ****+

New Planet, Amber Ale: When we moved on to the first of the five beers from the New Planet brewery in Colorado recently brought over from a craft ale store in the eastern US (thanks, Dr J!), we were looking forward to the variety of styles, all gluten-free, that this brewer produces. Just one store in rural Virginia boasted blonde ale, pale ale, amber ale, brown ale and raspberry ale (the website tells me that they also make a "Belgian ale"). The variation between these beers (at least the three that we tried so far) isn't as wide as you might hope, and the style on the whole not one we were much into, but I'll try to be fair in these reviews. The Amber is a beautiful, very deep but light amber color, cloudy and slightly sparkly, and smells like a strong, dessert rosé wine, with hints of cut grass, but also a bit vinegary. There is sparkly, peppery, orange-honey on the first taste, but it's sickeningly sweet in the mouth, although more robustly tart on the swallow. The lingering tart and yeasty aftertaste of fluoridated water or off beer doesn't do it any favors. I found this just about drinkable, but the consensus from the rest of the crew was a much less forgiving *

St Peter's, G-Free: Suffolk craft brewers St Peter's produce a phenomenal range of beers, with consistently high quality and so many beer styles on offer, as well as organic ales and the unmistakable lovely classic bottle. We had high hopes of this one (which Charlotte had tasted before and liked). A very clear orangey-yellow pint with a light head and fizz that dissipates fast, a smell of pollen, young corn, summer fields and caramel. The first taste is very sweet, almost cloying with honey and bitter fruits, followed by chewy green wood in the mouth, and an intensely bitter swallow, with lovely red-grapefruit pith and zest both lingering in a sweet, comforting and complex finish. Jacques found this much less impressive than the Night Mission, but most of us still loved it. ****

Hop Back, Crop Circle: The easiest gluten-free real ale to find, at least in London, this Reading-brewed offering is served in riverside pubs in summer and most people never know that it's anything other than a regular golden ale. In the bottle this is live, and I'm afraid we shook it up a little so are reviewing a more yeasty version than usual. It's a very pale yellow, quite cloudy with a light head, and a bready, even sweaty aroma. A bit of sour apple, sparkly on the tip of the tongue, with more mellow tartness in the mouth, not much bitterness in the swallow, but a chewy, grainy corn and fudge aftertaste that keeps it from being too boring. Valeria's glass was too yeasty, as she had the lees, but Charlotte and Jacques really liked this. Average rating: ***+

New Planet, Brown Ale: At this point in the evening we realised we'd been drinking light and golden ales all the way, and since gluten-free beers have the reputation of being a bit light and tasteless, thought we'd see if a dark ale could prove that wrong. The second New Planet offering we uncapped is a dark, reddish amber, not all that brown at all; it has a by-now-familiar smell of sour wine, but a first taste of fruity sweetness with a hint of rhubarb and custard, turning vinegary further back in the mouth. It's coarse and yeasty in the swallow, a bit like an old ale, more sour than usual. This is not my kind of beer, but it's by no means terrible; the others wondered a bit of the New Planet batch had been spoiled in transit, given how sour and yeasty both those we've tried so far were, but I don't think this is more vinegary than, for instance, a Wadworths 6X, or many American "Belgian style" beers. Still, not a favorite. **

New Planet, Pale Ale: giving New Planet one last chance, we popped open the pale ale, on the assumption that this at least would be more like what we expected from an American pale ale: super-hoppy, built to last any journey, hard to get wrong. The beer is a surprisingly dark orangey-brown, however, and has a yeasty but fruity aroma, powerfully sweet cherry first taste, and is juicy and tart on the tongue, like a citrus liqueur, bitter orange curaçao served with lashings of Irn Bru. There is some hoppiness on the swallow, but any hope of it lingering is crushed by the overwrought sourness and yeast. So much for that. **

Monty's, Masquerade: so next we played it safe: I've had the Masquerade at a festival before, and wanted to make sure we didn't leave this on the sidelines tonight. Monty's is a rare woman-run brewery in Montgomery, Mid-Wales, and I've tried a few of their rather reliable offerings quite happily. This one is a golden, lager-colored beer with a good head, a dry wheaty smell, and gentle orange and caramel on the tip of the tongue. It's chewy and bitter further back in the mouth, with lingering, complex, green vegetables and raw peel in the aftertaste. Throughout the experience, the lovely creaminess that lasted all the way from sweet to bitter was very satisfying. This ale is well-named: nothing in the drinking to suggest it's anything but a complex, well-balanced summer ale; exactly what you're looking for in a gluten-free that you can't tell is gluten free! This was both Silke and Jacques's top pick of the night, and it's had my vote since the festival. ****+

St Peter's, Dark G-Free: finally we tried the other fancy-bottled ale from Suffolk, this one a dark, glowing ruby color that shimmers promisingly in the light. The odor is somewhere between treacle and those roasted-grain coffee substitutes, and the first taste is of powerful sour fruit and sweet liquorice. It's smokier in the mouth, with the lingering bitterness of a strong, yeasty stout, with hints of smoked chicory and flaking, black bark. Very nice, if not quite as impressive as their regular G-Free. ***+

(Still in our stock, but not yet tasted, are: New Planet, Blonde; New Planet, Raspberry; Altiplano, Bierre au quinoa. I haven't yet tracked down a supplier for Wold Top's Against the Grain, but I'd like to add that to our repertoire. And of course, anyone visiting from the US any time soon will be asked to look out for anything by Glutenberg or De Proef and smuggle them back for us...)


  1. Gabby, I tried the New Planet Pale Ale here in Colorado where it should be fresh and had a similar impression. I think it's just poorly made. There's a particular medicinal flavor that I used to associate with homebrews that used cane sugar. I enjoy mead and sake and feel like I'm ready to enjoy beer made from sorghum, millet, quinoa, amaranth or whatever, but I wouldn't recommend NP Pale Ale.

    The Night MIssion sounds very good!

  2. Prompted by this post, I stopped by Sam's Quik Shop on the way home, which boasts "North Carolina's largest beer selection" and conveniently puts all their gluten-free beers in one section:

    A quick search revealed the Belgian Brasserie De Brunehaut offerings coming out fairly well against other gluten-free beers. Maybe one to keep an eye out for.

  3. Look out for our review of Stringers Plan B at the GBBF 2014

  4. A late follow-up, but there's also this now widely available in the states:

    Interestingly, they link to lab results for the level of gluten in each bottled batch.

    I'm trying one now, and if I didn't know it was "gluten-free" I'd think it was just another Stone/West Coast IPA.