One interesting new trend in the craft beer category is the emergence of gluten-free beers. Millions of Americans suffer from a physical inability to tolerate a protein in wheat and other grains, including barley and rye, called gluten. Known as Celiac Disease, it is an autoimmune disorder whereby ingestion of these proteins causes a reaction in which the small intestine is made incapable of absorbing nutrients from ingested food or beverages. The symptoms can range from abdominal bloating and diarrhea to anemia, osteoporosis and malnutrition. More serious complications can develop if even small amounts of gluten are ingested over a long period of time.
Celiac Disease sufferers generally avoid commercially produced beers or have been forced to settle for highly dumbed-down versions of beer. In response to the problem of thirsty, gluten-averse drinkers, craft brewers have started producing palatable beers made with non-traditional ingredients. Brewers have formulated their beers with 1OO-percent gluten-free ingredients and processes that ensure the purity of the consumable product.
The new substituted ingredients often include sorghum, buckwheat, rice, maize, corn, and sunflower. Sorghum and buckwheat are by far the most common ingredients used in American gluten-free beer. Native to northeast Africa, sorghum is a grass that tolerates dry weather and is frequently used in African brewing circles. With its origins in central and western China, buckwheat is an herb of the Buckwheat family Polygonaceae.
2007 is shaping up to be a big year for gluten-free beers. Ever striving to be ahead of the curve, Anheuser-Busch has released the first nationally available sorghum-based beer. Called Redbridge and sold in stores and restaurants carrying organic products, the beer uses Hallertau and Cascade hops to balance the sorghum. A-B is cleverly marketing the beer as a "beer made from sorghum" instead of as a "gluten-free beer."
Redbridge pours with a light auburn color and has a slightly astringent if unremarkable aroma. Very different from the funky aromas often found in sorghum based beers. The flavor is more like regular beers than those I've sampled made from sorghum and buckwheat, which is a real plus for celiac sufferers. The flavor occasionally turns oddly cotton candy sweet at times, but quickly comes back into balance. The overall flavor is perhaps a little thin compared to malt-based beers, which seems to be common among all sorghum beers. While hard to compare against regular craft beers, it is certainly a great advance forward for beer lovers who cannot otherwise imbibe contemporary wheat and malt-based beers.