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“The color’s about right,” Mike Dolan says, regarding the coffee-brown column of Green’s Discovery in front of him. That’s the best compliment he can muster about the anemic amber ale, the only gluten-free beer in stock at The Black Squirrel on a quiet Monday evening. As co-founder of both the local blog dcbeer.com and the local club DC Homebrewers, he’s had better. Much better. But not since January, when he learned that he suffered from “gluten intolerance”—and that beer was part of the reason he’d been waking up to an upset stomach every morning for as long as he could remember.
“Getting up sick every day was just par for the course,” Dolan says. There is no way to definitively “prove” gluten intolerance, and it has only begun to be diagnosed in the past few years with new genetic and blood tests. Awareness of the disorder was virtually nil when Dolan, now 29, was growing up. He knew certain foods, like spaghetti, made him ill, so he didn’t eat them often. He just thought he had a sensitive stomach, and he endured it. “You don’t really know what ‘normal’ is,” he says.
Gluten intolerance isn’t so different from other food intolerances, such as lactose. It means that the body reacts aversely to the wheat protein found in everything from pasta to soy sauce to meat tenderizer. It’s also in barley, which means most beer is off the menu. Things could be worse: Some 3 million Americans that suffer from celiac disease, which means ingesting gluten can permanently damage their intestinal lining. But considering that Dolan is one of the city’s highest-profile beer lovers, the diagnosis remains pretty lousy: You might as well take up wine.
Dolan and I sip our beers again. Green’s Discovery has the vague caramel taste of Newcastle, but with an odd health-food bitterness that comes from recipe’s gluten-free stand-ins for barley: millet, buckwheat, rice, and sorghum. Where there should be the pleasant bite of hops, the beer smacks with the stale edge of gas-station coffee.
The off-flavors of these alternative grains are just one of the obstacles working against gluten-free beer. There’s also their exorbitant price tags: a half-liter of Green’s, which is imported from Belgium, costs $15 at a bar and $6 in stores. American six-packs such as New Grist and Bard’s retail for $9 or $10. That price isn’t so different from conventional craft brews. The taste, on the other hand, is altogether different. And not in a good way.
Gluten-free breweries are saddled with all kinds of extra costs. For starters, they require dedicated equipment. No amount of sterilization is enough to ensure against cross-contamination. (To give you an idea of how gluten-sensitive someone can be, Dolan says he’ll get sick if he eats a burger that’s been removed from a bun.) There’s also low demand: Gluten-free beer is the worst seller at The Black Squirrel, an Adams Morgan establishment known for its prodigious menu of niche beers. The bar is able to move just two or three bottles a week.
This smaller scale drives up ingredient prices, too. Though he’s downsized his involvement in dcbeer.com and DC Homebrewers since going cold-gluten, Dolan still works at myLHBS (“My Local Home Brew Shop”) in Falls Church, a dangerous job for someone with his condition: He says has to run to the sink whenever he drips malt syrup or gets a dusting of malt powder on his hands. The store doesn’t sell gluten-free supplies because their wholesalers only carry sorghum syrup in unwieldy sizes. Whereas ordinary malt syrup comes in 4-pound containers, the sorghum jugs weigh 60 pounds, enough to make 50 gallons of beer.
At ChurchKey, whose 500-bottle menu offers a few more gluten-free options, Alex Barse steers me away from basic, yellow gluten-free beer, such as New Grist—and once again toward Green’s.
Like Dolan, Barse never meant to become a gluten-free beer expert. She started in the beer industry at age 21, waiting tables at a Colorado Springs brewpub called Trinity while studying sociology at Colorado College. Before long, she was bartending at the tap room at Boulder’s Avery Brewing Co., one of the country’s most prominent craft breweries. The first woman to work at the brewery other than Adam Avery’s sister, she drew loyal customers, a group that evolved into a weekly women’s happy hour called “Sisterhood of the Hop.”
“I got a following,” she says. “I look underage, and I was the only girl in the brewery.”
When Barse was diagnosed with celiac disease in October 2009, it meant more than switching to bland beer. She also had to leave her job. After eight months at Avery, she had just been promoted to the company’s plum sales position, the rep for the entire state of Colorado. “I was completely devastated,” she says. “This was my life.”
Barse tried to keep it a secret. Against her better logic, she abstained from all gluten except beer for three weeks. It was an improvement over her past diet—on top of all the beer, she’d also been carbo-loading while training for a triathlon—but she stayed sick. “The whole time I was at Avery I thought I was just really hungover. It was kind of ‘beer for breakfast’ over there…I would go into work and think, ‘God I feel like shit.’ But everybody felt like shit.”
When she came clean to her boss, they agreed the job was over. A sales rep has to taste beer with clients, a duty she could no longer perform. Her co-workers at the brewery, her “19 older brothers,” chipped in for a going-away gift of wine and gluten-free six-packs, and Barse packed up to return to her hometown of D.C.
At ChurchKey, Barse and I share bottles of Endeavour and Quest, Green’s gluten-free takes on the Belgian dubbel and tripel styles. Both are rough and alcoholic. Forced to choose, she goes for the Quest, a golden ale with a raw booziness and sweet flavors you’d expect from a vodka-and-Sprite. I wrestle with my brown, malty Endeavour, trying to enjoy its notes of dates, cardboard, and boxed red wine. After 15 minutes of straight-faced posturing, we push the glasses aside and order a round of English draft ciders.
“I don’t think anyone’s perfected gluten-free beer,” she says as the waiter removes our unwanted ales. “They’re all really the same. No one’s dry-hopping it, no one’s aging them in barrels.”
Barse, like Dolan and other erstwhile beer nerds, hopes that gluten-free options will improve as the market expands and breweries keep experimenting. Grains such as sorghum and buckwheat present new challenges for brewers, but their off-flavors can be harnessed for good. For example, one quinoa homebrew I tasted mimicked the pleasant pucker of sourdough, and Rogue has harnessed buckwheat to make Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale, a dark, nutty (but not gluten-free) beer that could replace the bass notes of soy sauce on a sashimi plate.
Barse is still close with her beer family at Avery. At last year’s Savor beer festival, she helped them pour samples while catching up on news of their new canning line. She considered making an exception and indulging at the beer fest, but she’s decided to hold out for a special occasion—say, a trip to Belgium—before drowning herself in good beer, indigestion be damned.
“Oh my God, I’d have to drink the beer if I was in Belgium,” Barse says. “I’d just bring a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and camp out in the hotel for the rest of the week.”