If you’ve been paying attention to the gluten-free beer world lately, you know there’s a new entrant to the marketplace: Dogfish Head. The craft brewer has a loyal following among “traditional” beer aficionados for its innovative brews. With its Tweason’ale—which first hit store shelves in January 2012—it’s hoping to expand that following to the gluten-free community as well. (Why does this blog post have a Bard’s logo, then? Read on to find out…)
Like many other gluten-free beers—including Redbridge, New Planet, New Grist, St. Peter’s, and a growing list of others—it is brewed from a sorghum syrup base. But did you know that not all sorghum syrup is created equal?
The overwhelming majority of sorghum syrup is made by pressing the stalks of sweet sorghum plants, and boiling the “sap” to make a molasses-like sorghum syrup. (Here’s just one example of a journal article that describes the process.) On a certain fundamental level, that’s good enough for brewing beer. At the end of the day, you really only need four ingredients to brew beer—water, hops, yeast, and a fermentable sugar for the yeast to feast on. Sorghum syrup provides that sugar. ‘Nuff said.
If, on the other hand, you want to drink (or brew) a gluten-free beer that’s more authentic, that’s closer to the origins of “real” beer, then it’s worthwhile to delve a little deeper. By a stricter definition of brewing, beer is a beverage made from malted cereal grains (usually barley) that are fermented with water, hops, and yeast. This is where things get sticky (pardon the syrup pun) with gluten-free brewing.
“Malt” usually inspires fear in the hearts of the gluten-free community. That’s because, as a noun, malt refers specifically to malted barley (aka, malt, barley malt), which contains—eek!—gluten.
But “malt” can also be a verb, as in “to malt.” It’s a process. In this context, it refers to the controlled germination, kilning, and roasting of a cereal grain in order to develop a desirable balance of starches and enzymes for beer brewing. Take a closer look at the Bard’s label up top. Notice the subtext? It says “the original sorghum malt beer.” How can a gluten-free beer brewed from sorghum be a malt beer? Because we’re not talking about malt as a noun. We’re talking about malt as a verb … as in “malted sorghum.” (For a behind the scenes look at malting, check out our blog post from 2010, “Malt of the Matter,” about malting our own millet for gluten-free beer brewing.)
To my knowledge, Bard’s is the only gluten-free brewer that eschews “regular” sorghum syrup in favor of using true malted sorghum. This is a notable difference. It makes a difference in their brewing, and it makes a difference in their beer. It can make a difference in your beer, too, since Bard’s sorghum syrup is now available through Midwest Supplies Homebrewing.
What is the difference, exactly? There are two answers, one based on process, the other based on taste. If you’re looking to brew (or drink beer) with “more authentic” ingredients, then the malted sorghum of Bard’s is an undeniable choice.
As for taste, we got our hands on some Bard’s sorghum syrup and some “regular” sorghum syrup, and tasted them side-by-side raw (before being used for gluten-free beer brewing). Both sorghum syrups had a base flavor reminiscent of brown rice syrup. But that’s where the similarities ended. The “regular” syrup had slightly lighter color, with prominent notes of honey. The Bard’s syrup, on the other hand, was slightly darker, with prominent notes of molasses.
So, the next time you pop the top on a nice cold bottle of sorghum-based gluten-free beer, remember that not all sorghum is created equal. Sorghum syrups can be made in very different ways, yielding very different flavors. Enjoy your beer with a greater appreciation for and understanding of the nuances of this ubiquitous ingredient that gives us gluten-free beer drinkers a growing number of options.