Confessions of a Celiac: In Search of Better Beer

This blog exists because of my love of beer.  You tune in, I presume, because you share that love of beer.  Imagine for a moment receiving news that your beer drinking days are over.  The news comes from your doctor who has just diagnosed you with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder caused by ingesting gluten. There is no cure.  Barley and wheat, the most common grains in craft beer, contain plenty of gluten.  Game over. 

Pat Cross, whose volunteer duties include being the Chancellor of Libations, organizer of the monthly Run Wild Missoula Beer Runs, got that very news three years ago. He authored the following guest post to provide a little insight into what its like to face celiac disease as a beer lover. 
BY PAT CROSS, a guest post to Growler Fills: Craft Beer Enthusiasm.

It isn’t often I am accused of being giddy… but the other night in Seattle not only was I accused of being giddy, I freely admitted it. But let’s start at the beginning of this story of joy. About three years ago I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Yes no more gluten for me, which means no real beer for me, ever.

Most of my adult life I have been a fan of good beer, mostly ales, Guinness and IPAs topping the list. I dabbled in home brewing and always made it a point to visit craft brewers whenever I was in a new town. Then this heinous disease came into my life.  Okay, it isn’t that heinous; at least I can control it with diet. Though when I mess up I am miserable for a good week. But it has taken real beer and a few other things that make life more wonderful away from me.

Over that past few years I have tried just about every gluten free beer I have come across.  With few exceptions I have been disappointed with what brewers have come up with. I realize only 1 in 130 or so people have celiac disease, so the market is pretty small which leads brewers to try to appeal to the least common denominator. That’s a nice way of saying they are afraid of big bold hops and other flavors.

The first fermented beer substitute beverages I tried were sorghum based. I’ve never been much of a fan of drinking syrup and that’s what these sorghum based brews reminded me of. Sadly the best I found was Redbridge, a brew from Anheuser Busch, which should tell you something right there.

Then the folks at Missoula’s KettleHouse began brewing Seeley Axe, a nice bright lager style beer. Yes it is a reduced gluten beer, so some folks may have a reaction, but if I don’t drink more than a growler over a couple days I have no ill effects. And the colder this beer is the better it tastes to me. Since it’s a lager style beer, as an ale guy it leaves me wanting a bit more robust flavor and hop profile. That being said it does really hit the spot after a run or a day out on the river.

A year or so ago Widmer Brothers Brewing came out with their Omission line of beers with a lager and a pale ale. Both are nice, but they aren’t the big hoppy ales I love. What is remarkable is these are real beers, brewed with barley then run through some special wiz-bang filtration process that removes the gluten. [Ed. Note: Widmer uses an enzyme to break down the proteins, including gluten in the beer.] The process gets the gluten down to less than 20 parts per million. So my life got a little more bearable, but still not giddiness inducing.

Earlier this year I stumbled upon Estrella Daura Damm, a Spanish beer using a similar process to the Omission beers. And while it is a lager, it is a true European lager with that unique hoppy finish. So I now had a couple beers I could turn to and enjoy to some extent, but then the beer gods decided to finally smile on my pitiful little existence.

A month or two ago I started hearing rumors of a new entry in the Omission line, an IPA. Well I wasn’t going to hold my breath, but I did make a concerted effort to find a bottle or two while in Seattle a few weeks ago. So we wandered into some tap house place in Seattle, 160 handles on the wall, which is an impressive sight in and of its self.

I ordered the Omission IPA, poured it into a glass and took a long slow sniff, oh yes this smells promising. Cascade hops, and a bit of malt. I took a sip, which quickly turned into a gulp. You know it is hard to drink when you are grinning, but I managed. For the first time in three years I was drinking a beer I enjoyed. I wanted to jump up on the table and do a dance, I didn’t because I wanted to finish my beer, but I really thought about it.

Yes this is when I broke out in a major case of the giddies. I guess I was babbling and grinning and ordering another before the waitress finished setting down the rest of the drinks. My friends started to make fun of me but when I told them that this was the first real beer I’d had in three years, well they decided I deserved a bit of joy.

Oh and thank you Widmer Brothers, but when will you start shipping it to Montana?
Pat’s story is a good reminder. We take this beer stuff pretty seriously for something isn’t all that important in the big scheme of things. Not when stacked up against one’s personal health. It’s also a good explanation why breweries like Widmer are putting so much effort into creating “real” beers that are “reduced gluten,” as the Feds require them to be called.  Bridger Brewing in Bozeman has used the same enzyme to create a few reduced gluten beers and the results have been pretty tasty as well.