Brewing Gluten-Free Beer: Mashing with Alternative Grains

This is the second post in our series covering the gluten-free brewing process. In the first, we provided a brief, general overview of the entire process. Now we’ll look at the steps in detail, starting with Mashing.Mashing in All-Grain Brewing

In any brewing process, the starches from the grains are broken down into sugars which are then fermented to form alcohol. In the mashing stage, the starches are extracted and broken down by enzymes found naturally in the grains, a process called saccharification. The grains must be heated in water, which will release the enzymes and begin the breakdown process. Heat is a very important component at this stage, and must be controlled so as not to ruin the mash.

The mashing process seems simple on the surface. The grist, or milled grain, is added to the water used for mashing. During this process, specific enzymes are activated, each playing a particular role in the brewing process. The let’s take a look at each enzyme:

  1. Beta Glucanase: Beta Glucanase breaks down the cell walls of the grains. This makes the starches more accessible, aiding in the extraction process.
  2. Protease: This enzyme does several things, each involving the breakdown of proteins found in the grains. This breakdown produces free-amino nitrogen (FAN) for yeast nutrition, frees small proteins from larger proteins for foam stability in the finished product, and reduces haze-causing proteins for easier filtration and increased beer clarity.
  3. Amylase Enzymes: This is where the magic happens. These enzymes breaks down the starches, forming sugars. These sugars are dissolved into the surrounding water and will later be fermented to form alcohol. There are three main types of amylase enzymes, alpha-amylase, beta-amylase, and limit dextrinase.

At the end of mashing, you’re left with a soupy mixture of grains and sugary water, called the wort. The wort is separated from the spent grains in a process called lautering to ready it for boiling and fermentation.

Extract Brewing

In many cases, not just when brewing with gluten-free grains, brewers will use what is called extract. Extracts are essentially syrups made from the sugars found in the grains. Rather than mashing in-house, the grains will be malted and mashed by a third party. The wort, or sugary water, is separated from the grains and then boiled down to form the syrup. This is essentially dehydrated wort, and once it’s added to hot water becomes ready for the next stage of the brewing process. Brewers will often steep specialty grains in this wort to add extra flavors, similar to how you steep tea bags.

Brewing Gluten-Free

Most, though not all, gluten-free beers currently on the market use a similar approach. Sorghum extract is easy to come by and provides a good base for a gluten-free beer, whether you’re a major company or a home brewer. The sorghum base can then be modified with other gluten-free specialty grains, like the chestnuts used by Harvester Brewing, or fruit such as strawberries. Some breweries mash their own sorghum grains (all-grain brewing) to make their wort, like Bard’s Tale Beer company, and a few use other gluten-free grains to create their mash.

Looking to brew your own gluten-free beer? Let us know by posting a comment below!