The Rundown: Nine Popular Gluten-Free Beer Ingredients

We’ve gotten to know a lot of gluten-free grains in our “Get to Know a Gluten-free Ingredient” series, and now we feel it’s time to get to know what they do for our gluten-free beer.  After all, making beer is the fun part, right? Barley-based beers generally only include a handful of grains–malted barley and occasionally wheat or rye. Gluten-free grains give us a much larger palette to work with and the option to create some really unique styles. Now let’s look at an assortment of gluten-free grains and talk about how they affect beer. Note that we’ll focus primarily on the grains in their unroasted form. Once the grains are roasted, the flavor profile and color additions can be changed drastically, opening up an even wider variety of possibilities.

SORGHUM

At this time, sorghum is by far the most common grain used in gluten-free brewing. This is primarily because the brewing process for sorghum is very similar to the brewing process for barley and it is available in extract form. Sorghum has a distinct fruity aroma and flavor, but also adds distinct tart aftertaste that must be balanced in the flavor profile. Unroasted sorghum doesn’t add much in terms of color or protein, so sorghum beers can be a little bit thin and transparent. You can roast sorghum to create a variety of flavors. We currently do not brew with sorghum, but it has been used for a wide variety of beer styles. Sorghum would work well with lambics and other sour beer styles.

BUCKWHEAT

Buckwheat adds a tart, wheat-like flavor. When it’s roasted, it can add a nice nutty character as well. Pale buckwheat doesn’t add much color but roasted buckwheat can. It also contains a decent amount of protein and is good for head retention. Buckwheat is very susceptible to spoilage and can cause rancid flavors if not stored  and handled properly. While we don’t use it in the Aurochs White Ale, it can be a good addition to weizens and white ales if used in appropriate quantities. Green’s uses buckwheat in several of their beers.

MILLET

Millet is probably the most versatile gluten-free grain and may be the closest to barley in terms of flavor profile and enzymatic performance. Pale (i.e. unroasted) millet adds some mild, malty flavors. Much like barley, millet can also be roasted to create toasted and chocolaty flavors, and add color to the beer. It can even be used for crystal malt to add some sweetness without adding a lot of additional gravity. Millet can be used in a wide variety of styles of gluten-free beers with one caveat. For improved flavor, try to add complexity to your beers by using millet with additional gluten-free grains.

QUINOA

When used for brewing, quinoa adds a flavor that tastes like, well, quinoa. When it’s roasted first it can add a toasty or biscuity flavor. While unroasted quinoa has a relatively neutral flavor, quinoa is high in protein and is a great addition to help with head retention. Quinoa can be used in almost all styles of gluten-free beers, but is a great addition to stouts, porters and weizen style beers where head retention is important. One important note about brewing with quinoa is to make sure that is has been rinsed, because quinoa has a natural repellent called saponins.

HONEY

There are two constants with honey:  it doesn’t do much for head retention and it will kick up the gravity of your beer since it’s almost all fermentable sugar. Beyond that, the colors and flavors added by honey vary widely. On one end of the spectrum, clover honey adds a mild flavor and very little color, while on the other end of the spectrum buckwheat honey adds strong flavor and a dark color. There are lots of varieties of honey in between that add their own characters.  Different styles of honey can be used as adjuncts for a variety of different beer styles. The Dogfish Head Tweason‘ale uses buckwheat honey.

RICE

Rice doesn’t add a lot of flavor, but it can be used as an adjunct to lighten the flavor of the beer.  It also doesn’t have a lot of protein, so it doesn’t provide much help for head retention.

CHESTNUTS

Chestnuts add a nice roasted, nutty flavor to the beer (and make your kitchen/brewhouse smell awesome). They don’t provide much fermentable sugar and getting the sugar out of them can be a pain, but they can be a great flavor addition to darker beers like a brown ale, stout, porter or winter seasonal. Harvester Brewing in Oregon is leading the way with the use of chestnuts.

AMARANTH

Amaranth, doesn’t add much color and has a mild, slightly nutty flavor.  Like quinoa, it contains a lot of protein and is great for head retention. It is a good addition to stouts, porters and similar styles.

OATS

Oats are also used as an adjunct in barley-based beers like oatmeal stouts. They don’t contribute much in terms of color or flavor, but the high protein, lipid and gum content improves mouthfeel and adds a really smooth texture. Oats are best used as an adjunct, and generally should only make up 10-15% of the total grain bill. They’re used primarily for oatmeal stouts.  Note that not all oats are gluten-free, so it is important to select oats that have been certified gluten-free. Additionally, studies have shown cross-sensitivities between celiac sufferers and oats.

What did we miss? Do you know any other ingredients used to make gluten-free beer? Let us know by posting a comment.