Editor’s note: I’ve been wanting to do a feature on gluten-free beers for a while now, but I’m really more of a hard alcohol guy. Fortunately, we were able to recruit Heather Marsh, who gathered some friends, drank a lot of beer, took notes and photos, and wrote the excellent review you’re about to read. Thanks Heather!
When I moved back to Portland, I wasn’t much of a beer fan. I know, no one admits that. But it didn’t take very many dinners out with friends to be converted from no beer, to some beer, to being a genuine fan of beer. Our beer options in Portland are fantastic, and I was slowly learning to love the various flavors. Then I found out I was gluten intolerant. Then I found out I may be celiac.
I’ve been gluten free for long enough that I can’t really remember what the beautiful Portland beer (that I was just starting to appreciate) tasted like.
I’ve seen gluten free beers around town, and tried a couple. It was nice to have the option, but I was never terribly impressed. One day I decided to compare them, so I did an internet search and pulled together a couple GF options. My brother and I (both gluten free) had an informal tasting, for our own information. But due to our novice knowledge of this strange and wonderful beverage, we really only succeeded in selecting our favorites. After conversations with several gluten free friends, and after discovering a couple other gluten free beers, I decided I wanted to do a more thorough investigation. I’m including my findings here, but I highly encourage you to try this at home! Both for the sake of the knowledge it will provide you, and because it’s just plain fun. And your friends will think it’s the best idea you ever had.
Because of my inexperience with beer in general, I brought in a posse of beer-loving, non-gluten-free friends and experts to consult on this important experiment. Here’s what we came up with (in the order we sampled them)! (Editor’s note: They sampled the beers from light to dark, so they end up being listed in roughly that order.)
1) Estrella Damm Daura
This pale, smooth beer has hints of apple. A mild, gentle flavor, with a bitter finish. Not bad, but it didn’t hit the top two list of anyone in the party. Also, I understand it’s made with barley, and has the gluten removed to under 6ccs. Not sure how that works for someone who is extremely sensitive, but it sounds like a risk that might not be worth it for the mild taste. I recommend hitting a hard cider instead if you want this sort of flavor.
2) Green’s Triple Blond
This one was much more complex than the Estrella, and didn’t have the bitter aftertaste. It was sweet, fruity, and smelled of apple. One of the tasters thought it had hints of vodka, but that could be from the high alcohol content. It was almost reminiscent of a sparkling wine. I really liked it, and I’m not usually a fan of the paler beers.
3) St. Peters Sorgham
Certainly the best bottle in class (lighter beers). I realize that doesn’t say anything about what’s inside, but hey! The beer itself is bitter, with layers of different flavors. Sawdust and peanut shell were both mentioned. We all agreed it has a strong wood flavor and it smells vaguely of tobacco, good cigars. I wasn’t crazy about it, but others enjoyed it. Someone else finished off my taster.
4) New Grist
Sweet and light, and reminiscent of a hard cider, only not as flavorful. It’s a little like drinking juice, understated, with a mild flavor. I didn’t mind it, but I don’t think I’d seek it out. The consensus was a resounding “meh.”
This light, golden beer has more color than any of the previous selection, but it wasn’t our favorite. It has a citrus start, and a smoky, caramely finish. Its smell was described as olive oil and acetone (the main ingredient in finger nail polish remover… yumm?). No one finished their taster.
A smoky smell and a heavier flavor. Tasted like caramelized molasses with hints of tobacco. Wasn’t my favorite, but certainly not bad.
7) Deschutes Gluten Free
While not yet available in bottled form (although I have heard rumblings that they are hoping to start bottling eventually… fingers crossed for sooner, rather than later), I wanted to include this in the test anyway. I’ve had the beer in the Deschutes Brewery and Public House on NW 11th and Davis, and I love it, and when I called to find out how to get it “to go,” they assured me that they could fill any size receptacle (that seals), so I went in with my Mason jar and got a pint and a half. A little spendy, but I really think it might be worth it.
The Deschutes was our pick for the Pale Ale lover. It had the 3rd best head, a bitter–lets call it tangy–smell, and had hints of grapefruit and bergamot in the flavor. I have a vague recollection of tasting apricot when I had it with a burger at the restaurant, but no one could find that flavor when we did the tasting, so maybe the complexity is affected by food. Either way, it’s an absolutely lovely beer, and those in our party who love IPA were all impressed. Get yourself a jar (or if you can drink that much, a growler, they sell them at Deschutes) and pick some up, or just go down there and enjoy a great meal. They’re not paying me to say this… it really is just that good.
8) Green’s Amber Ale
This one has the second best head, a creamy white that sets off the amber of the beer itself. Even compared with gluten filled amber ales, this one got a very enthusiastic thumbs up. It’s tangy, with strong apple and gentle coffee flavors. Mild hints of caramel that linger and a malty twinge. A lovely, complex, flavorful choice. And, as with all three of the Green’s options, it comes in a 16.9oz bottle, so there’s more to share! There was no disputing it’s spot on the top three list.
9) Green’s Dubbel Dark
This one takes the award for best head, which apparently the Belgians (from whom this fine beverage comes to us) scrape off. We did not. It’s sweet and dark, caramely and beautiful. Dark beer people loved this one, and I’m assured it’s as good as the gluten filled options for the person looking for a barley wine substitute. I can’t say enough good things about this beer; it’s hands down my favorite. My friend Lexie determined “it’s like a beer cappuccino!”
All of these options, with the exception of the Deschutes, can be found at various locations around our lovely city. I picked them all up at Beermongers on SE Division, which I love, because they have all of these beers, and because they’re friendly, and it’s on my way home.
For more information on these beers, check out their websites, or the links below. The above are only the opinions of a panel of six judges, with varying tastes, so who knows what you’ll discover!
Gluten Free Beer Festival, compiled by a group in the UK. Not all of these options are available here in the States, but it’s fun to read, and they have ratings and explanations that might be helpful for others who are new to the beer scene!