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The Celiac Expert

Gluten-Free Beer: Behind the Labels

beer glass and bottle on a brownThe number of beers labeled “gluten-free” has skyrocketed in recent years, and with vast improvements in variety and taste, the warm-weather landscape is encouraging for those with celiac disease. But it’s still important to exercise caution before popping the bottle cap and imbibing freely.

Regular beer is off-limits since it’s made via the fermentation of barley, a process that doesn’t remove the gluten protein. Gluten-free beers have avoided this problem by starting with gluten-free grains, such as sorghum, millet, rice or buckwheat, each providing its own unique essence.

For die-hard beer drinkers still pining for “traditional” flavors, new barley-based lagers such as Omission from Widmer Brothers have hit the market. Many consumers liken Omission to conventional beer both in appearance and taste, but the manufacturer states they use a special proprietary method to “hydrolyze” (break down) and remove the toxic barley peptide fragments, making it safe for those with celiac disease.

After some initial euphoria, Omission’s gluten-free claim came under scrutiny by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the U.S. Treasury that regulates the labeling of barley-based beers. In an interim policy, they ruled that no barley-based beers could carry the label “gluten free” regardless of brewing methods.

The TTB’s stance is backed by concerns that current testing cannot fully verify the removal of all gluten from hydrolyzed beers. The competitive R5 ELISA test is used to determine the gluten-free status of beer, but it may not be as sensitive as needed, potentially yielding an “all clear” result when gluten might still be present. The test also requires formal validation in a multi-laboratory trial before the TTB will approve it as a conclusive test for obtaining gluten-free status.

The TTB will allow Omission, and similar barley-based brands like Prairie Path and Daura, to use the declaration “processed to remove gluten” along with the qualifying statement: “Product fermented from grains containing gluten and processed to remove gluten. The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.”

Until they can be verified as gluten-free by a fully validated test, many celiac experts recommend holding off on the hydrolyzed barley-based beers. To ensure safe sipping, purchase brews that are fermented from gluten-free grains in dedicated gluten-free facilities or on lines that follow strict protocols to prevent cross-contamination with barley, wheat and rye beers.

If gluten-free beer has yet to satisfy your palate, consider a refreshing libation made with gluten-free liqueurs or distilled alcohols such as rye, gin, vodka or rum. Unlike fermentation, the distillation process does remove all gluten protein for a beverage that’s recognized as safe for those with celiac disease. However, if you drink ciders, coolers or other flavored alcoholic drinks, check the labels to make sure they do not contain barley malt.

Next: Chart of gluten-free beers available.