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Gluten-Free Homebrewing #1: Basics

This is the first in a series of posts by our brewmaster, Igliashon Jones, on gluten-free homebrewing.

Like most brewers today, I started out homebrewing, and owe much of my current brewing knowledge to the homebrewing community–especially the gluten-free forum at homebrewtalk.com, where I still occasionally participate.  In the interest of giving back to the community that nurtured me, I intend to share a homebrew recipe every month until I run out of recipes to share.  These won’t be beers that are in production or development here at Ghostfish, since we are still a very, very young brewery and need to protect our “trade secrets” until we are firmly established.  However, they WILL be beers that I’ve brewed in the past and thoroughly enjoyed, and which I’m confident are better than almost any GF beer you can buy at the store.  Some of them will be familiar to anyone who’s followed my old blog, or my posts on homebrewtalk, but some of them have never been shared before.  All of them will be appropriate for novice homebrewers, and can be made with ingredients readily found at the larger online homebrew shops.  That means they will be extract-based, with the occasional addition of non-malted steeping grains.

Before I jump in to a recipe, however, I’d like to just cover some basics on ingredients and techniques specific to gluten-free brewing.  I won’t cover general brewing techniques, those are covered supremely well in books like Charlie Papazian’s Complete Joy of Homebrewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew, at least one of which should be in every homebrewer’s library.

Basic Ingredients

As with most commercial gluten-free beers, you should plan to rely heavily on sorghum grain extract (NOT to be confused with sorghum cane molasses, which is readily available at grocery stores but is made through a very different process and has a very different flavor) as well as rice extract (available either as a syrup or as “rice syrup solids”, which are more or less interchangeable in my experience).  You will also want to add maltodextrine (aka maltodextrin or malto-dextrin), but make sure it is corn- or tapioca-derived.  Maltodextrine adds body and improves head retention and is quite necessary for making GF beer with proper mouthfeel and appearance.

Special Ingredients

This is where homebrewers really have the opportunity to improve the quality of their beer beyond what is available commercially.  The fact is, GF commercial brewers (yes, even us) have a bottom line to answer to, which limits the sort of ingredients we can include (and how much of them we can rely on).  Many of my old homebrew recipes, if we were to produce them commercially, would end up costing upwards of $15 to $20 for a four-pack of 12 oz cans, for example.

Homebrewers, however, do not have any accountants to answer to (except perhaps their significant others), and can spend whatever they like on ingredients to make the best beer possible.  These ingredients might be things like chestnut chips, Belgian candi syrup, raw unfiltered varietal honey, coconut palm sugar, raw agave nectar, Lyle’s golden syrup, and so on.  Homebrewers also generally have a better selection of hops than a small start-up brewery, since commercial brewers either have to contract for a whole year in advance, or take what’s “left over” on the spot-purchase market.  This means that high-demand hop varieties, such as Citra, Amarillo, Mosaic, and Nelson Sauvin, are difficult for a small start-up brewery to get their hands on–even big craft breweries often have to wrangle over them!

Steeping Grains

One of the unique aspects of gluten-free homebrewing is the use of unmalted steeping grains.  Barley-based homebrewers often use steeping malts in a “partial mash” for color and flavor, and then finish off by adding some malt extract to achieve the target gravity.  When steeping unmalted grains, such as roasted buckwheat, “forbidden” black rice, or oats, there are no enzymes to convert the starches to sugars, and even using the amylase formulas available on the homebrew market, it can be difficult to successfully mash unmalted grains to get any sugars out of them.  However, they can still be useful in adding some color and flavor, and I made many good beers with unmalted steeping grains.

The thing to bear in mind, though, is that you generally want to AVOID getting too much starch into solution, so you want to steep the grains below gelatinization temperature.  Since most gluten-free grains have a gelatinization temperature that is higher than usual mash temps, steeping at 150°F is usually safe; just, whatever you do, do NOT boil them!  If you steep too hot, you will get an excess of starch in your beer that will make it impossible to clear (no matter how much whirlfloc you add or how many times you rack and cold-crash).  You may even get a starchy flavor that will not be pleasant.

When using steeping grains, I generally recommend adding some alpha-amylase after you remove them but before you start the boil, just to reduce any stray starches that did make it into the wort.  It’s not totally necessary, but it can help.  Just don’t expect to get anything fermentable from the process.

Yeast

I’ve yet to find any brand of dry yeast on the American market that is not 100% gluten-free.  Liquid yeasts are playing the PPM game, meaning they might be safe for some drinkers but not others.  If you really, really want to, there are ways of “washing” liquid yeast to make it truly gluten-free, but with the steadily-growing variety of dry yeasts, I have never felt compelled to bother with that.  If you are able to control fermentation temperatures, you can coax a surprising variety of flavors out of the dry yeasts that are available.  My opinion is that almost any beer style can now be achieved with dry yeast alone; the main exceptions are the beers that historically relied on wild organisms, such as Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus, but even these can be attained using traditional fermentation techniques using wild-harvested organisms.

What to Expect

Over the next several months, I’ll be sharing my favorite homebrew recipes that proved either too expensive or technically too difficult for production at Ghostfish; don’t let the novice difficulty level fool you, these are all good beers that I am proud to put my name on, and which I want to make available to the public by whatever means I can.  Each post will have a complete ingredient list, and sufficiently-detailed instructions for making a 5-gallon batch.  I’ll cover the particulars of any special techniques as they apply to the recipes.

Coming up next week will be the first actual recipe, and incidentally it is perhaps the first homebrew recipe I ever made that I thought was really, really good: the infamous “Grapefruit IPA”!

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  1. […] post is a follow-up to last week's post, "Gluten-Free Homebrewing #1: Basics", part of our ongoing series with brewmaster Igliashon Jones sharing some of his favorite old […]