Brewing with the Aurochs: Body

Though American culture generally treats being “thin” as a positive thing, this is not the case when it comes to beer. What’s worse, being thin is a negative characteristic often associated with gluten-free beers. The good news is that this is changing. It is an exciting time for gluten-free beer consumers as we are starting to see new, passionate gluten-free brewers spring up across the country. What that means are fuller bodied beers and more of them. So let’s take a minute to learn more about body, and how it relates to beer.

Body is a component of mouthfeel and is generally associate with touch or texture. Body is a palate fullness that is primarily derived from density and viscosity. Density refers to the mass of the liquid per unit volume, while viscosity is resistance to flow, or thickness. The more dense and viscous a beer is, the more body it will have. But the two properties are not necessarily linked. Cooking oil, for example, is less dense than water (which is why it floats) but more viscous (why it feels thick).

Body is not unique to beer and it is not the same as carbonation. They are both components of mouthfeel. If you want to experience body, try drinking skim milk followed by heavy cream. For those who are dairy intolerant or like to enjoy wine, try a big bodied red, such as Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon and compare it to a more medium bodied Pinot Noir or a light bodied Riesling.

When it comes to beer, the density and viscosity result from the ingredients and processes used by the brewer, which contribute sugars, proteins, and minerals to the finished beer. Ingredients play an important role in either increasing or decreasing body.

Lets step outside the world of gluten-free beer for a moment and look at the mass-market beers. They sometimes cut their barley-based beers with corn and rice to save money and make their beers more “drinkable.” The reasoning behind this is that corn and rice tend to be less expensive than malted barley. Saving all this money finances multi-million dollar Super Bowl commercials, but it also decreases body and makes the beer thin (not to mention the impact on flavor). Although corn and rice are naturally gluten-free, this practice has (fortunately) not made it into gluten-free beers yet.

The challenge with body and gluten-free beers comes from an underdeveloped supply chain. Up to this point, the majority of gluten-free beers have been brewed with sorghum extract syrup and rice syrup. These ingredients have their strengths, but one of the downsides of these ingredients are that they do not possess the body building capabilities of barley based beers.

The other downside of these ingredients is that they are only added during the boil and eliminate the need for mashing. The challenge is that mashing enables you to manipulate the body of beer by mashing at different temperatures. You can supplement this through the use of crystal or caramel malt which contribute long chain sugars (dextrins) to the beer. Dextrins are sugar in the scientific sense, but are not necessarily perceived as sweet on the palate. They do however contribute to the mouthfeel of the beer. To understand crystal or caramel malt, think of the parallel process of barbecuing in which you can caramelize the natural sugars on the exterior of the food. Caramel or crystal malt is a similar process on the molecular level. Some brewers are starting to add dextrins from tapioca (naturally gluten-free) to boost the body of their beers.

Though many people may think that gluten-free beers are “thin,” we expect this to change. As the number of gluten-free beers increase, so too will their body. Gluten-free beer consumers are fortunate because it is becoming easier and easier to indulge ourselves in a great tasting gluten-free beer.