Gluten and Beer: What’s the gluten intolerant beer lover to do?
A person that is gluten intolerant (has celiac disease) has a real problem if they also happen to be a beer lover. The beverage that they love is almost certainly made from one or more of the grains (barley, wheat and rye) that are specifically prohibited from the only known treatment for the disorder — dietary avoidance of the gluten proteins that are found in these grains.
Gluten and Beer: What’s the issue?
The specific gluten or prolamin proteins in these grains (hordein in barley, gliadin in wheat, secalin in rye) trigger an autoimmune response known as celiac disease in persons that are susceptible (gluten intolerant). This autoimmune reaction causes injury to the absorptive lining of the small intestine, leading to a number of symptoms that may include abdominal pain, bloating, cramping and diarrhea. If not diagnosed and treated, a number of secondary problems occur often related to malnutrition caused by the intestinal injury. The only effective treatment is dietary modification to avoid exposure to the offending proteins by eliminating all foods and beverages made from the associated grains. Since beer is made from these grains, it is prohibited in the prescribed diet.
Gluten and Beer: What are the alternatives for a beer lover?
1. One could ignore the prescribed treatment (see the following DISCLAIMER). This would be generally unwise due to the potentially serious long term effects of the disorder. Celiac patients do vary quite a lot in the degree of their intolerance, so it is conceivable that if a person was only slightly intolerant, that person could get by with picking and choosing what dietary items can be tolerated. Many celiac patients are sufficiently intolerant and thus ill, that they must follow some form of gluten-free diet.
All of the following options assume general adherence to a gluten-free diet.
2. Follow a gluten-free diet except for beer. This also may be unwise for the same reasons as in the first option. Again, the degree of intolerance would be a determining factor.
3. Give up beer and all other alcoholic beverages.
4. Switch to alternative beverages such as wine, mead, cider and/or spirits. Some spirits have been deemed unsafe for celiac patients (those made from the involved grains such as bourbon, scotch, other whiskeys), but it has been argued that since the offending substance is a protein and even the smallest building blocks of proteins, amino acids, are not volatile, then the offending proteins or peptides would not be present in the finished spirit (as long as none were introduced after distillation). All of these potential libations are enjoyable and could be very acceptable alternatives.
4. Switch to gluten-free beers that are increasingly available commercially. These “beers” are made from grains and other substances that are gluten-free themselves. For the beer lover, taste will definitely be the key factor. I have tried some of the available offerings (Redbridge from Anheuser-Busch, New Grist from Lakefront Brewery) and they are drinkable alternatives. Several others are currently available or more will be certainly be developed given demand.
5. Make your own gluten-free beer. Since I am a home brewer, this is a good area for experimentation. There is information available on the best methods of producing a good beer with gluten-free ingredients, although it is somewhat scattered and disorganized.
6. Make your own beer and render it virtually gluten-free. This is still a controversial topic but there is a commercially available enzyme that specifically targets the offensive portions of the gluten proteins. Much more work needs to be done on testing the utility of this approach and determining if it really is a viable option.
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DISCLAIMER: This information is only intended for discussion and must not be construed as either general or specific advice. Persons with celiac disease must consider the context of their specific condition in collaboration with their personal physician for any specific recommendations regarding their healthcare.