Plenty of people insist that gluten-free beer is, actually, pretty good. Many of these people sell gluten-free beer, or else haven't had an honest-to-god wheat beer in years. But as more and more people are, by necessity or choice, deciding to go gluten-free, both the selection and the quality of beers made of sorghum, millet, rice, buckwheat, corn, and other gluten-free grains has increased mightily. Whereas five or ten years ago, gluten-intolerant beer lovers were more or less out of luck, now they've got hundreds of gluten-free beers in various styles at their disposal. Here in the East Bay, many bars carry at least one brand, while grocery stores like Whole Foods, specialty shops like Beer Revolution and the Wine Mine, and liquor outlets like Beverages and More tend to carry several brands, available in singles and six-packs.
I'm not gluten-intolerant, but I wanted to give them a fair shake. If anything, it was a sort of philosophical experiment — after all, what's beer without one of its most essential ingredients? In a nutshell: It tends to be milder, flatter, sweeter, and more watery than traditional beer. Which isn't necessarily a problem if you're a fan of weaker beers. (I'm not.)
We started with the British-made St. Peter's Brewery Sorghum Beer (4.2 percent ABV, $5.99 for a pint at Beer Revolution). It tasted malty and grassy, with a long, slightly unpleasant back-of-the-throat finish and a strong sour flavor. It was also, conspicuously, barely carbonated — a trend we noticed across the board with these beers. Meanwhile, the Lakefront Brewery New Grist (5.7 percent ABV, $9.49 for a six-pack at Whole Foods), a sorghum-and-rice blended ale out of Wisconsin, was much milder, with a light, sour, faintly floral flavor and a thin texture. It wasn't entirely unpleasant — pretty refreshing, actually — but it wasn't quite beer, either.
After that, Green's Endeavour Dubbel Dark (7 percent ABV, $5.99 for a pint at Whole Foods), a Belgian-style beer made from a blend of millet, buckwheat, rice, and sorghum, was promising by virtue of its name, its alcohol content, and its color — a dark, caramel brown that was significantly darker than the rest of the beers we tried. And while it certainly had the most complex flavor of all the varieties we sampled, texturally it was flat and thin. Rina, our token gluten-free taster, got a ripe, juicy, apricot flavor, while I picked up honey, oats, and something faintly metallic.
Easily the best, though, was the Bard's Gold (4.6 percent ABV, $1.99 per bottle at BevMo), a light-bodied American ale that is, according to the ever-knowledgeable folks at Whole Foods, generally the grocery store's best-selling wheat-free beer. This is a (bunless) hot-dog-at-a-baseball-game beer — refreshing, mild, and vaguely molasses-y, with a clean finish. It tasted only faintly alcoholic and had a bubbly, fizzy mouthfeel, almost like a soda or a sparkling wine. Steven described it, aptly, as "normal beer, junior" — not necessarily bad, just lighter and less complex than your standard wheaty brew. And then he got up and grabbed a Stella from the fridge.