When Robyn McLean was a university student, she would become violently ill after drinking beer. It wasn’t because she drank too much of it. “I never knew why it made me so sick,” she told the Georgia Straight. But when she was diagnosed with celiac disease years later, at age 30, that reaction suddenly made sense.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder for which the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley—and beer is, typically, made from barley malt. People with celiac disease often cut beer from their diet because in the past, there have been few gluten-free alternatives.
But the craft-beer renaissance is changing all that. “In the last two years, gluten-free beer has evolved,” McLean says. “It’s greatly improved in terms of availability, finding it in liquor stores and restaurants. There’s more variety—before, it used to be just one or two—and they’re getting better in how they taste.”
McLean runs the blog Gluten Free Vancouver with her sister Andrea McLean, who also has celiac disease. It’s aimed at people who are living a gluten-free lifestyle because of celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or dietary choice. (While the Canadian Celiac Association estimates that about 1 in 133 Canadians is affected by celiac disease, many people remain undiagnosed and others report sensitivity to gluten.) According to McLean, gluten-free beer is one of the hottest topics among their readers.
Gluten-free and gluten-reduced beers are popping up all over Vancouver. Craft Beer Market serves six varieties, including Brunehaut’s Bio Amber, a medium-bodied ale from Belgium. Last spring, the restaurant focused one of its monthly brewmaster’s dinners on such beers.
Val Vaartnou, treasurer for the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association, was one of the attendees. In a phone interview, Vaartnou emphasized that the jury is still out as to whether all beer marketed as gluten-reduced is safe for celiacs and those with gluten intolerance. “It would be nice to say that every time we went into a restaurant and asked for a gluten-free beer that we could drink it, but celiacs have to be aware,” she said. “Some celiacs, when they have the gluten-reduced beers, do get very sick.”
Vaartnou explained that gluten-free beer that’s brewed without any gluten-containing ingredients, such as barley, is safe for celiacs to drink. These include the American brands Bard’s, a lager brewed entirely from sorghum, and New Grist, brewed from sorghum and rice. But some recent additions to the market, such as Portland’s Omission brand, are “gluten-removed” beers; that is, they’re brewed with barley and are then processed to break down the gluten molecules to less than 20 parts per million.
Health issues aside, do these beers actually taste good? According to Gluten Free Vancouver’s McLean, the Quebec brand Glutenberg is the most popular among her readers. “Everybody I’ve talked to has said it’s one of the best,” she says. “It’s also 100 percent gluten-free.”
Glutenberg makes five types of gluten-free beer: blond, American pale ale, red, Belgian double, and India Pale Ale. McLean likes the flagship pale ale, a hoppy beer with citrus and caramel notes and a mild bitter finish. She recommends Legacy Liquor Store (1633 Manitoba Street) as a good source for gluten-free beer.
Eric Pateman, executive chef and president of Edible Canada, speaks highly of Glutenberg’s red ale, which the restaurant sells by the can. “It’s outstanding,” he says. “It’s one of the first gluten-free beers that actually tastes like beer.”
Pateman notes that when he was diagnosed with celiac disease 14 years ago, there was no good alternative to the Guinness stout he favoured, so he stopped drinking beer. “I looked for alternatives in wine or spirits, and I never really looked back.” That combined with the taste reputation of gluten-free beer means people aren’t in the habit of ordering it. Even at Edible Canada—where 20 to 30 percent of the clientele follows a wheat-free diet—gluten-free beer isn’t a big seller.
Reached at the Crosstown Liquor Store (568 Abbott Street), Dan Wier—general manager of the three Vancouver My Liquor Store outlets—notes that Glutenberg is one of his most-requested gluten-free brands. So is Ground Breaker Brewing (formerly known as Harvester), a Portland brewing company that produces a core lineup of pale ale, dark ale, and two IPAs. “With the whole craft-beer movement, people with special diets are starting to say, ‘We want to try an IPA too,’” Wier says.
However, he sees gluten-free beers as more of a specialty item than a big trend. They tend to be expensive—four 473-millilitre cans of Glutenberg Red Ale cost $18.45—and availability is always changing. “At the end of the day, people with gluten allergies just don’t drink a lot of beer,” Wier says.
Still, for those who’d like to enjoy a beer but want to avoid gluten, it’s good to know that the landscape has changed. “It’s nice to be able to have options when you’re going out with friends or coworkers for drinks,” McLean says. She now looks forward to enjoying a cold beer on a hot day—one that not only tastes good but makes her feel good, too.