What is gluten?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in many cereal grains we grow for food and drink. It helps grains keep their shape, acting as a kind of elastic that holds them together. Gluten can be found in many food types – from breads and breakfast cereals to soups and pasta – but for our purposes, in terms of those used in the brewing industry, the main ones are wheat, rye and barley.
What is gluten intolerance?
Some people are sensitive to having gluten in their system. The range of sensitivity, as with so many things, is very wide: from an occasional mild feeling of discomfort or bloating to full-on allergic reactions. Then there’s Coeliac disease which (though technically it is an auto-immune disease rather than allergy/ intolerance) sees the body’s immune system attack itself when gluten is eaten, damaging the lining of the gut, potentially fatally.
Why is there gluten in beer?
Brewing beer is a complex process but it’s primarily made by fermenting sugar from grains (which contain gluten) using yeast. The yeast digests the sugar to produce alcohol.
- Water – typically more than 90% of the final product
- Grain – the source of sugar for fermentation; the most commonly used are barley, wheat, and rye — all of which contain gluten
- Hops – traditionally added to provide a unique, bitter taste
- Yeast – the live organism that digests sugar to produce alcohol
Brewers can and do often use other grains, sugar, flavourings and/or additives to craft and modify colour, taste and aroma. Some of these ingredients may also contain gluten. But, because almost all beer is based on barley or wheat there is little or no impact on gluten, necessarily, when it comes to the level of alcohol (ABV) a beer contains.
Beer types and gluten content
Because of the processes and ingredients used in brewing, the gluten content varies hugely depending on the type – rather than the alcoholic strength – of a beer. Just how hugely can be seen in a study published by the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information in 2013, which assessed the average gluten content of different beer types, broadly, as follows:
- Lager: 63 ppm
- Stout: 361 ppm
- Ales: 3,120 ppm
- Wheat beer: 25,920 ppm
Lagers, then, whether alcohol free or not, look generally like the best bet for anyone who is gluten sensitive. That said, individual products within (and sometimes spanning) these categories vary enormously, so always check the label before launching in.
In the UK and most other countries food and beverages must contain fewer than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten to be categorised as gluten-free**. Because they are grain-based products, the overwhelming majority of traditionally brewed beers contain considerably more than 20 ppm of gluten.
Low alcohol beers
While there’s little or no direct relationship between the levels of alcohol and gluten in beer, it will come as little surprise that quite a few of the brewers who produce low/no alcohol beers are customer-focused enough to be developing low/no gluten beers to serve that expanding market as well. In the UK breweries like Big Drop, Nirvana, Drop Bear and St Peter’s are among the growing list of alcohol-free craft brewers whose output includes a growing range of gluten-free beers. You can find gluten-free beers and other drinks on the lightdrinker.com by checking the appropriate box in the search bars but among those we found the most flavoursome, so far, are Jump Ship’s Yardarm Lager, Big Drop Paradiso Citra IPA and, if you’rev after both zero alcohol and gluten-free (and a little bit different all round) Freestar Prime Time Lager
**Note: It is worth noting that some organisations argue that even 20ppm of gluten is a risk for those with Coeliac disease. And that, in the UK specifically, brewers are not legally required to test gluten levels in their beers, although any reputable brewer claiming their beer is gluten free should have done so and had it certified. As such, if you have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity, always check the label and/or producer’s website to make an informed decision before drinking.