Drop the phrase “gluten free beer” in a sentence with someone who knows something about beer and they’ll give you an odd look. It is seen as an oxymoronic statement because beer must surely have gluten, right?
You see, the trouble with gluten and beer can be blamed on the Germans. As if World War I and II weren’t enough trouble, they also created this annoying law in 1487 called the Reinheitsgebot. This law, better known as the “German Beer Purity Law” (seriously, what is it with Germans and their need to legislate purity?) stipulated that all beer can only consist of the following ingredients: barley, water, hops. Enter the problem of trying to make a gluten free beer. Barley is one of three gluten containing grains and, according to the Germans, you can’t call it beer if it doesn’t have barley but it can’t be gluten free if it has barley…the merry-go-round is endless.
So technically, you cannot make a beer that is gluten free. That is, you cannot make a beer that is gluten free if you happen to reside in Germany or see the world through a German-centric worldview. Really, it becomes a worldview issue. (And all my Christian friends wondered how I would bring worldviews into a beer discussion?) You see, all of us see the world through preconceived notions and preferences. Something shapes our understanding of the world, what is right and wrong, etc. When it comes to beer, the world is pretty big and the practice of brewing is very, very old. Beer is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, known created beverage. From what we can tell, people were brewing beer in 9500BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Think about that for a minute. More than 10,000 years ago people were making starch, sugar and yeast have a party and drinking the results. At that time, Germany was so far from being a formal concept that the Teutons hadn’t even figured out how much they hated other races nor how much they loved to worship trees.
Dogfish Head Brewery has done a pretty good job of trying to branch out and explore ancient brews. They still incorporate malted barley but if you watch the documentaries of their work, you’ll see they travel all over and find beer made from lots of different ingredients that do not contain gluten but are very much, by the native standards, considered to be beer. In South America there is Chicha; in Africa there are Sorghum beers including the infamous Chibuku Shake Shake. In Asia there are numerous beers made from rice…you get the point. Turns out lots of people all over the world were making beer before the Holy Roman Empire was formed and before the German Purity Law was enacted.
So yes, you can brew beer that is gluten free and it can still be beer. In fact, you can just call it beer if you want. Millions of people for thousands of years were doing just that before the Germans came along, I don’t know why we should let them ruin all of our fun!
But there is a tiny problem. The gluten free beer we brew here at Three Taverns Brewery is, well, Germanic in style. Well, more appropriately, it is Western European and North American in style and so, largely dependent, upon the Germans. So the challenge–and what makes gluten free brewing so much fun–is to attempt to develop recipes which mimic their European counterparts but are gluten free.
Let the fun begin!