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Monday, April 16, 2012

Omission and the Future of Gluten-Free Beer

Note: reading this for the first time this morning (24 hours after posting), I see it has some egregious problems of grammar and diction. Some have been fixed.

Whole grains contain the unattractively named "glycoproteins," gluten compounds that themselves contain oligosaccharide chains covalently attached to polypeptide side chains (essentially, a carbohydrate fused to a protein)--if the writers of the Wikipedia page got it right. To these glutens a little less than 1% of the population are allergic. That doesn't seem like a particularly ripe target for beer-makers, but it has been. Deschutes has made over 40 iterations of gluten-free beer, Portland's Harvester Brewing makes only gluten-free beer, and now Widmer Brothers Brewing, under the Craft Brewers Alliance (CBA) label, has introduced a new line called "Omission."

I don't understand the science of gluten in brewing, but I know its impact on beer. Gluten is an important structure-adding element, and without it, gluten-free beer is water-thin and susceptible to hop distortion. (If you ever wonder how powerful the hop is without balancing malt, boil a few flowers for just a minute in water and see how bitter it is. It'll melt your face off.) When breweries use grains like millet and sorghum to make gluten-free beers, they end up with thin, unbeery beers that are frankly terrible. Breweries have tried to augment this by throwing in various other body-enhancing ingredients, but the dozens of Deschutes experiments are a clue to how well that works.

CBA has followed Spain's Estrella Damm through door number two--removing gluten from barley and brewing it normally. No millet, no sorghum, just regular ingredients processed by removing the gluten. (CBA has lots of information and science behind the testing standards.) I'd love to know the process--I envision hundreds of lab technicians dissecting malt grains and tweezing gluten molecules, but as delightful as that image is, it's impractical and unlikely--but Widmer's not saying. There's other science here I'd like to know more about, like how the two beers, a pale ale and a lager, manage to raise a head without the gluten. Perhaps in time these secrets will emerge.

The Beers
Gluten-free beers have a captive audience and, like non-alcoholic beers, don't have to be very good to satisfy them. I am not so easy. Gluten-free beers are so terrible that I have heretofore subjected them to the Alworth Requirement: that they not be so offensive that I immediately dump them into the sink. So far, no gluten-free beer has passed the Alworth Requirement (I haven't tried many). For them to be considered something other than the orthopedic shoes in world of fashionable Nikes, however, they must pass a further test: that they are tasty enough that I, a gluten-lover, would buy them in spite of the fact that they are gluten free. Call it the geek bar.

CBA has introduced Omission (currently available only in the Oregon) in two flavors: lager and pale ale. These are "classic template" beers designed to fill the broadest swathe of need in the celiac world. The pale ale's a classic Cascade-hopped beer, and the lager is helles-like. How do they stack up?

Pale Ale
It pours out in a perfect facsimile of a pale ale: good color, almost ruddy, with a nice and fairly sustained head. A whiff of gently citric hopping in the nose. The true test comes as it washes across the tongue: not bad! It is thinner than a regular beer, and there's a tannic, tinny character hiding inside. You can actually get a good sense of the role malt plays in boosting hop flavors because here the Cascades feel a bit hard-edged and lifeless. Still, the beer easily clears the Alworth Requirement and I finish it without complaint. As for the geek bar: would my hand drift toward Omission at the grocery store when I'm considering Mirror Pond, Sierra Nevada, and Caldera--my regular go-tos? Nope. It's light years ahead of millet beer, but it's not ready to compete head-to-head with the best, glutin-rich pales.

Next came the lager, which again would rouse no suspicions based on its perfectly beer-like appearance. Which is quite nice: bright straw with a lively bead. The aroma is spicy and lacily delicate. The tongue test is where all is revealed. Like rays of light shining through glutinous clouds, Omission is a revelation. A perfectly made helles, it has the delicacy you want when hops and malt are working in harmony. Perhaps owing to the type of beer and my expectation of less body and sharper crispness, the absence of gluten is completely invisible. And damned if it isn't a pretty tasty beer. The hoping begins seeming spicily noble, but drifts a bit toward the fruity and citrusy in a wink to home-country fans. Not only did I not dump this beer in the sink, but I relished it and would happily buy another sixer. It will be a fine addition to my summertime lineup.

Needless to say, gluten-free all-barley beers are the future of the movement. Millet is dead.


  1. I bought a sixer of each over the weekend. I preferred the Lager and I, too, will make it a summer standard.

  2. Dominic, Thornbridge Brewery12:05 PM, April 16, 2012

    "There's other science here I'd like to know more about, like how the two beers, a pale ale and a lager, manage to raise a head without the gluten. Perhaps in time these secrets will emerge."

  3. Dominic is close, but not quite right. I hate to post anonymously, but I know what Widmer is using in this product. The "science" is franken-science. The means of gluten reduction is via the addition of enzymes, which, according to the product's documentation, "in the producing micro-organism genes naturally present in the micro-organism have been multiplied using biotechnological techniques". Using genetically manipulated products in a "craft beer" isn't what craft is all about in my book. And the gluten free community isn't one to engage blissfully with GMOs, so I'll stick with "clean" beers for now.

  4. As to the market for this beer, while there may only be 1% of the population that is actually gluten intolerant a significantly higher percentage self diagnoses as such.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful post about Omission, Jeff. We're glad to know that both beers passed the "Alworth Requirement" and are excited that Omission gives consumers more opportunities to enjoy a great tasting craft beer -- whether they're gluten intolerant or not.

    You're not alone in wanting to know more about our process. While we're not currently revealing all details about the Omission program and brewing process, we can confirm that we are not using "hundreds of lab technicians dissecting malt grains and tweezing gluten molecules." That said, I also wanted to address the previous comment from Anynomous regarding GMOs: under definitions accepted by the US Government, Omission beers do not contain genetically modified organisms and are not brewed with genetically modified organisms. We do have plans to share additional details about the Omission program the coming weeks, which will help clarify similar questions and others that we’ve received since we launched Omission in Oregon, so stay tuned for those.


    Brady Walen
    Marketing Communications Manager
    Omission Beer