Maybe it’s just me but when I think of fall, aside from pumpkins and golden leaves, I immediately think of football, sweaters, boots and beer.
For those of us with Celiac, coping with the loss of drinking beer can be quite the challenge, especially in the fall (and the summer. And maybe the winter too).
Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means a big drinker or anything close to a beer connoisseur. I enjoy my fair share of wine and whiskey, but ever since going gluten-free I have come to miss beer.
Gone are the days of grabbing a Labatt at Thursday at Canalside or sipping on a cold Flying Bison at Thirsty Buffalo while watching the Bills game.
While many a beer lover will say that gluten-free beer just doesn’t taste the same, there’s no doubt that it has come a long way in the past few years.
While the craft beer and hard cider markets have been growing, breweries have been catching on to the prevalence (dare I say trendiness) of the gluten-free diet by brewing kick-ass beverages to suit the varying preferences of the ever-expanding Celiac community.
To kick off the season and help you get through those Buffalo winter blues (aka the Buffalo Bills blues), I have compiled a list of gluten-free beers and ciders that you can enjoy without making your stomach fumble. (see what I did there?)
The first step to drinking gluten-free beer is developing an understanding of the beverage. Beer is made using water, starch (typically derived from malted barley and/or wheat,) fermented sugar and hops.
Since barley and wheat are both gluten-based grains, gluten-free beer can be made in two different ways: the first way is to use a wheat base but remove the gluten through processing. The second way is to skip the wheat all together and use an alternative such as sorghum, millet, buckwheat or rice.
Sorghum-based beer is by far the most popular due to its close resemblance to generic, gluten-filled beer. While sorghum-based beer can be delicious, it’s usually hard to forget that you’re drinking a gluten-free alternative. Many people remark that sorghum-based brews have a “slickness” that seems to be a dead giveaway to its gluten-free nature.
To test the theory, I had a guest taster (without Celiac) sample beverages with me to provide both the glutenous and gluten-free perspectives on locally available gluten-free beer and hard cider. We gathered at my stomping grounds, the Hotel Lafayette, and got to work.
Here’s what we tried:
—Estrella Damm Daura: The Daura, Estrella Damm’s gluten-free beer, contains the lowest gluten levels of almost any beer with less than 3 ppm, making it compliant with the FDA’s latest standards for gluten-free product labeling.
This light, crisp, non-sorghum lager is made using barley malt and has won numerous awards for its quality taste. In 2011 the Daura won gold medals at both The World Beer Championships and the International Beer Challenge. It also won the World’s Best Gluten-Free Lager Award at the World Beer Awards.
The Daura’s non-sorghum base results in a beer that smells and tastes like a regular beer. “It’s light, not too hoppy and tastes just like a wheat beer,” remarked my guest taster.
Verdict: Personally ranked as No. 1, guest-ranked at No. 2 of the seven beers tasted.
—Omission: Owned by the Craft Beer Alliance and brewed at Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland, Ore., Omission beer is specifically crafted using a proprietary process that removes gluten.
While the brand is known for being gluten-free friendly, it is worth noting that the beer is still brewed with malted barley meaning that outside of Oregon, Omission isn’t legally allowed to label its beer as gluten-free since barley is a “prohibited grain.”
Regardless, Omission’s use of a malted-barley base is exactly what makes the beer stand out as being one of the best tasting gluten-free beers.
Both Omission’s Lager and their Pale Ale received awards in the 2012 Great International Beer and Cider Competition in the Gluten-Free Beer category.
For those who are extremely sensitive to gluten, I’d recommend taking caution when trying Omission beer for the first time to ensure it doesn’t cause a negative reaction. You can find where Omission is served locally here.
Verdict: We sampled Omission’s Pale Ale and I ranked it at No. 2, but according to my guest taster, “This one is the best of the bunch. It tastes just like a regular beer. I’d buy this.” He ranked Omission at No. 1
—Bard’s Tale Beer Company: Brewed and bottled in Utica, Bard’s is made by creators who felt that the lack of gluten-free beer options was an injustice that must be corrected. Bard’s made it their mission to provide beer for the over 2 million people who are gluten intolerant.
Brewed with malted sorghum, Bard’s has succeeded in producing a medium bodied beer that is rich and similar to Newcastle in its mildly hoppy yet bold flavor. The beer leaves no lingering aftertaste, unlike other gluten-free beer. You can find Bard’s in the following local restaurants or stores.
Verdict: Ranks in at No. 3
—Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales: In January 2012, Dogfish released its first and only gluten-free ale, Tweason’ale. Tweason’ale is a seasonal sorghum-based beer made with hints of molasses and fruit.
This labor-intensive beer was created to provide a healthy, safe and delicious option for gluten-free lager-lovers. The result is a fruity smelling and tasting beverage. The strawberry flavor is not overwhelming and leaves you with a fruity aftertaste.
Worth noting is that Tweason’ale is only released between seasons. Check out Dogfish’s “Fish Finder” to find Tweason’ale in a store near you.
Verdict: Ranks in at No. 4
—Redbridge: One of the more popular when it comes to gluten-free beer, Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge is a light sorghum-based beer with a slightly fruity aroma, a sweet toasted grain flavor and a moderately hopped finish. The beer is sold year round and is one of the most locally available.
While Redbridge is well-known due to its placement in the Anheuser-Busch family, the beer itself is a little flat when it comes to flavor. “There’s not much going on here,” my guest taster remarked.
Verdict: Ranks in at No. 5
—Green’s: Imported by Merchant du Vin, Green’s specialty Belgian ales are full-bodied and crisp.
All varieties of Green’s beer have a five-year shelf life and are made with millet, sorghum, buckwheat and rice making them safe for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dieters.
Green’s distinct line of beer includes their Endeavor Dubbel Ale, Quest Tripel Ale and the Discovery Amber. The Discovery Amber won the 2011 Foodie Award from Vegetarian Times and is medium bodied and well-balanced.
We sampled Green’s Amber Ale, which was dark in color and had a lot of head or foam at the top of the glass. “It’s okay but I wouldn’t buy or drink it again,” said my guest taster.
Verdict: Ranks in at No. 6
—New Planet: Based in Colorado, New Planet is a family-owned and operated company that was started by fellow Celiac supporter and sufferer Pedro Gonzalez. As stated on its website, New Planet’s purpose is to help everyone “celebrate life with a great tasting beer and to do good things for the planet.”
New Planet is known for producing a variety of sorghum-based beers for those with varying preferences. Their five flagship beers are: Pale Ale, Amber Ale, Blonde Ale, Raspberry Ale and Belgian Ale. We tried the Raspberry Ale and the Blonde Ale, which were both light in color and taste.
While I commend New Planet for donating a portion of its proceeds to helping improve the planet, I personally think they might benefit more from improving the taste of their beer.
“This is kind of nasty. It sort of tastes like furniture polish,” remarked my guest taster. While I can’t confirm that statement, as I’ve never tried furniture polish, I have to admit that New Planet didn’t sit well with either of us.
Verdict: Ranks in at No. 7
For me, fall and cider go hand-in-hand.
Unlike gluten-free beer, which some dieters are wary of due to the processing involved, hard cider is one alcoholic beverage that is naturally made without any gluten ingredients since it is derived from apples.
Seeing how the Buffalo.com team weighed in on cider during the Hard Cider Challenge, I decided to focus my efforts on the three most popular and widely available cider brands: Woodchuck, Angry Orchard and McKenzie’s.
—Woodchuck Hard Cider: As one of the top-selling hard cider brands in the U.S., Woodchuck is well known for its quality product and commitment to providing the Celiac community with safe beverages.
“We take Celiac Disease seriously, and since Woodchuck has always, and only, been made from apples (not wheat, barley or rye) none of our cider varieties have ever contained gluten.”
In addition to safety, Woodchuck is dedicated to variety; they produce a number of different flavors including core flavors, limited seasonal releases and private reserves. The six core styles are: Amber, Granny Smith, 802 Dark & Dry, Pear, Raspberry and Crisp.
Woodchuck’s limited release collection contains four varieties available by season and the private reserve collection includes: Pumpkin, Belgian White, Barrel Select and Pink.
Not only is Woodchuck committed to providing gluten-free dieters with a beverage proven to be safe, but Woodchuck has one of the most expansive lists of cider varieties that I’ve found. Check out Woodchuck’s calendar for cider availability.
Two of their best flavors currently available are Pumpkin and Fall. We sampled Fall and it was one of the best drinks we tried; the hints of nutmeg and cinnamon make it a perfect fall drink.
“This is awesome! It sort of tastes like apple pie or something. I’m going to buy some of this on my way home,” remarked my guest taster.
Verdict: Woodchuck’s Fall cider ties with McKenzie’s Seasonal Reserve for No 1.
—Angry Orchard: Hailing from Ohio, Angry Orchard has produced ciders since 2011. The brand gained recognition early on, making them the second best selling hard cider brand in the North East food region after Woodchuck.
Angry Orchard produces four different cider varieties available all year round: Crisp, Traditional, Ginger and Green Apple. They also have a seasonal flavor which currently is Cinnful Apple, a crisp and refreshing cider with a hint of apple tart and cinnamon spice.
Of all the ciders we tried, Angry Orchard definitely has the strongest apple flavor.
We sampled the Crisp flavor and it tasted just like sparkling apple cider. Click here to find the local spots which serve Angry Orchard.
Verdict: Ranks in at No. 3
—McKenzie’s Hard Cider: McKenzie’s, my favorite brand of hard cider, was founded in Buffalo in 2011 by husband and wife Lenny and Julie Ciolek.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the Ciolek’s over lunch at MacGregors’ on Sept. 26 and was blown away by their enthusiasm, humility and excitement to share their story with me.
McKenzie’s came to market in 2011 after Lenny, who had been working for Woodchuck, saw an opportunity to get into the hard cider market. Ciolek approached the Mayer Brothers in 2010 (who he credits for producing “the best sweet cider in the world”) to help make the product.
The Mayer brothers joined the team and within a year the product was booming and available on tap at MacGregors’.
“It usually takes a while to notice how one product affects sales, but we saw cider sales skyrocket as soon as we started offering McKenzie’s,” remarked Chris Spillman, general manager of MacGregors’.
By July 2013, the brand had grown so much that McKenzie’s decided to take another partner outside of Mayer Brothers.
While Mayer Brothers still produces McKenzie’s, Lenny Ciolek remarked that at the time, “Mayer Brothers wanted to focus on their core business which is sweet cider and water, whereas we wanted to expand to make a national and even global brand.”
McKenzie’s currently produces five different flavors: Original, Black Cherry, Green Apple, Seasonal Reserve and Lazy Lemon. All are made using local ingredients and Western New York’s apples; the result is a fresh, crisp and very flavorful cider.
McKenzie’s is widely recognized and applauded for their true gluten-free good neighbor status. “We’re very active in the local community,” said Julie Ciolek.
“It’s important to us that people know that we’re made in Western New York,” added Lenny Ciolek.
Not only is their product locally owned and produced, but the Cioleks are extremely friendly, passionate and dedicated to their brand and customers.
“Our hands-on approach is what makes us who we are,” said Lenny Ciolek.
And this isn’t just talk. The Cioleks commitment to the brand can be seen on their website; Lenny’s direct cell number is listed on the site’s ‘contact’ tab.
“We get out there and talk to our customers,” remarked Julie Ciolek.
Now available in 13 states, McKenzie’s is rapidly catching up to the high-profile status of its two main competitors, Angry Orchard and Woodchuck. They have received several awards including Double Gold Medal for Black Cherry and Silver Medals for Original and Green Apple at the 2012 New York Wine & Food Classic.
They also won ‘Best Specialty Beverage’ at the Buffalo Zoo’s Wines in the Wild and Polar Bites events.
It’s exciting to see McKenzie’s rapid growth right in our own backyard. Not only have the Cioleks succeeded in creating a quality product, but they have done it using local ingredients.
While all of their flavors are delicious, my personal favorite is the Seasonal Reserve which is available from September until late February and tastes like apple pie in a glass. (Seriously. I don’t joke when it comes to pie.)
McKenzie’s is widely available at local bars and restaurants; click here to find a list of places where you can get it.
There is no doubt that as Celiac disease becomes more prevalent, gluten-free drink options will become increasingly available at local stores and restaurants.
So, treat yourself to a nice fall drink by visiting one of the stores listed below:
—Wegmans: While the availability and quantity of gluten-free beer and cider varies by location, Wegmans is usually stocked with almost every variety of hard cider. In terms of beer, they usually have Green’s, Estrella Damm Daura, Omission, New Planet, Redbridge and Tweason’ale. Even better is that Wegmans offers a “craft pack”, allowing shoppers to mix and match by choosing six different beers for $9.99.
—Tops: After calling a number of different locations, I was surprised to learn that the only gluten-free beer available is Redbridge. However, Tops does have a number of different hard ciders available including Woodchuck, McKenzie’s and Angry Orchard.
—Village Beer Merchant: With locations on Elmwood and Hertel, the Village Beer Merchant is always stocked with at least two brands of gluten-free cider and beer each. They have incredible customer service and let you buy by the bottle, which is great for those of us which like to sample different kinds of beer. When I last visited on Sept. 22, they had Dogfish’s Tweason’ale and multiple varieties of Angry Orchard, Woodchuck and Blackbird. Worth noting is that they usually carry Omission but were sold out due to popularity.
—Consumers Beverages: Consumers has a wide selection of gluten-free beer and hard cider. Although you can’t buy by the bottle, the majority of the gluten-free offerings come in four or six-packs and can be purchased for around $5 to $10 per case. Consumers typically carries New Planet varieties, Tweason’ale, Estrella Damm Daura, Bard’s, Redbridge, and varieties of both Green’s and Omission. Similarly, they always have Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, Crispin and McKenzie’s varieties.
—Dash’s Market: While availability varies depending upon the store, Dash’s typically has Redbridge, McKenzie’s, Woodchuck and Angry Orchard.
—Premier Gourmet: Located on Maple Rd., this place is fully stocked with virtually any beer or cider you might be looking for. In terms of gluten-free beer, they have New Planet, Bard’s, Redbridge, Tweason’ale, Omission, Estrella Damm Daura and Green’s varieties. Premier Gourmet also carries around 30 different cider brands of which McKenzie’s, Woodchuck and Angry Orchard are the most popular. When I visited for my first time, I was shocked by the enormity of the place. I also appreciated the clearly labeled rack of non-alcoholic and gluten-free beer. Like the Village Beer Merchant, Premier Gourmet sells their gluten-free beverages by the bottle and they are very reasonably priced.
In my experience, the availability of gluten-free beer and hard cider can change quickly depending upon the season and the popularity of the specific brand. I recommend calling places beforehand to see if they have what you’re looking for.
Regardless of what type of beer or cider you like, or where you live in the city, there is something out there for everyone.
Don’t be afraid to sample and try new things. I guarantee there will be at least one beverage that you’ll fall for this season.
[Green’s beer photo courtesy of Flickr/allaboutgeorge. Redbridge and Bard’s photo courtesy of Flickr/sanbeji. Redbridge bottle top photo courtesy of Flickr/rachelpasch. Daura beer bottles photo courtesy of Flickr/dearbarbie. Woodchuck hard cider photo courtesy of Flickr/nikokaps.]