No Barley? No Problem! Gluten-Free Beers

Whilst roaming Maine, writing things and trying beers, I noticed an interesting-looking brew. A gluten-free beer, made from sorghum. “How cool!” said I, and made a mental note to try it later. Alas, I never got the chance.


It was this beer, incidentally.
It was this beer, incidentally.

But it did get me thinking about gluten-free beers and their place in history. As you no doubt know, beer is made from four ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast. Unfortunately for those with celiac disease or other gluten intolerances, barley contains gluten: a protein which causes pain and discomfort in those who cannot properly digest it.

And so, people with gluten intolerance should not drink our beer at Black Creek. However the main chemical reaction in brewing is the conversion of sugar (derived from the barley) to alcohol by yeast. So really, to make beer, you need hops, yeast, water, and [insert source of fermentable sugar here].

Which means that you can, theoretically, make beer from other types of grains: sorghum, rice, millet, and corn. While some might quibble over whether a barley-free beer is really beer, these grains would create an alcoholic, gluten-free beverage. Indeed, some home brewing kits include a sweet sorghum syrup instead of malt—I could find very little information on whether sorghum is malted, but the commercially-produced syrup also includes unfermentable sugars and amino acids as yeast nutrients.

But what about the Victorians? Did they have gluten-free beers?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Not that Victorians would have thought of it as “gluten-free beer.” It was just beer made without barley. And why would one make beer without barley?

It’s cheaper. Remember, to make alcohol, the yeast really just needs fermentable sugar. Molasses was frequently used as a substitute or supplement to barley malt:

“Hop Beer”

“…a handful of hops, a pailful of water and half a pint of molasses make a good spruce beer. Spruce mixed with hops is pleasanter than hops alone.” (Mrs. Child, Mrs. Child’s the American Frugal Housewife, 1859)

At least you like spruce, Mrs. Child…

“Jumble Beer”

“Take 2 spoonfuls of ground Ginger, and 1 pint of molasses, to 2 ½ pails of water; first mix the ingredients with a little water warmed, especially in cold weather; then add the whole compliment of water and shake it very briskly, and in about 6 or 8 hours it will be sufficiently fermented.” (Samuel Curtis, A Valuable Collection of Recipes, Medical and Miscellaneous. Useful in Families and Valuable to Every Description of Persons, 1819)

I have my doubts about how alcoholic this one would be. Here’s another beer from Samuel Curtis, called, appropriately enough, “Another beer.”

“Another beer”

“Boil 1 ounce of hops, 1 ounce of pounded ginger, and 4 pounds of treacle, in 2 gallons of water; when at the temperature of new milk, add Yeast to ferment it in the manner of malt liquor. This is reported to be wholesome and agreeable, and it not only cheaper, but will keep much longer than common beer.”

Sometimes, Victorians even used acorns!

“Cheap Beer”

“Steep a quantity of acorns in water for 15 or 20 days, renewing the water 4 or five times. Transfer them to a cask and add a handful of hops; fill up the casks with water, and lightly cover, not stop, the bunghole, as there is an escape of gas. In 15 or 20 days, the beer is fit for use…” (S.S. Schoff and B.S. Caswell, The People’s Own Book of Recipes; and Information for the Million, 1867)

At least they’re honest with the name… showing again, that while we look for barley alternatives for health reasons, Victorians would have been doing so in the name of frugality and thrift. Although I do wonder if an acorn beer was worth the savings… 😉



Child, Lydia Maria Frances. The American Frugal Housewife. New York: Samuel S. & William Wood, 1838.

Curtis, Samuel. A Valuable Collection of Recipes, Medical and Miscellaneous. Useful in Families and Valuable to Every Description of Persons. Amherst: Elijah Mansue, 1819.

Schoff, S.S. and B.S. Caswell. The People’s Own Book of Recipes; and Information for the Million. Kenosha, Wis. Schoff and Winegar, 1867.

Stuck on Stouts

I am definitely a creature built for warmer climes. And yet, for some reason, here I remain in Canada. As winter wears on, I’m finding myself drawn increasingly to malt-oriented beers, particularly stouts. Thanks to a generous friend, I have another beer book in my library. So  I’ve been curled up with my stouts, reading about stouts. What could be more wonderful (or meta) than that?


The beer library grows...
The beer library grows…

The stout, as it happens, has a history nearly as impenetrable as its colour. Say the word “stout” today, and most people immediately think Guinness. While Guinness is certainly one of the better known stouts, it isn’t the only—nor what it was it even necessarily the first.

See, the really fun thing about beer history is that specific terms mean different things at different times. References to “stout beers” actually appear in the historical record around 1677, but these aren’t the stouts with which we’re familiar. Rather, at this point, “stout” simply designated a strong beer. Thus, it was entirely possible to have a “pale stout,” which seems like an oxymoron today.

The stout we know and love today is closely intertwined with the development of the porter. The history of the porter could be an entire blog post all on its own, so to keep things simple: by the 1700s, the porter had become popular throughout London as a more-aged, slightly stronger style of beer. In 1778, a certain Irishman jumped on the bandwagon. You may have heard of him—Arthur Guinness?

So maybe we saw that one coming…

It actually took Guinness a while to turn his attention to porters. He started brewing in the 1750s, taking over a family-run brewery in the town of Leixlip, County Kildare, Ireland. He’d relocated to Dublin by the end of the decade, where he signed a 9000-year lease, paying £40 (about $75) yearly. Not too shabby. He brewed several different styles, but by the end of the 1700s, he was focusing almost exclusively on the porter. Guinness’s porters came in varying strengths, so he commonly referred to them with names like “plain porter,” “stout porter,” and even “double stout porter.”

All of this begs the question: when did porters and stouts diverge into different styles? Well, according to some, they never really did: they’re just two variations on the same style of beer.

But if you really want to distinguish them…there are a few handy historical benchmarks. In 1817, a man named Daniel Wheeler invented a process of kilning barley at a temperature so high, the grain carbonizes, thus creating a very, very dark malt. How dark? Dark enough that even a small amount added to the grain bill results in an almost completely-black beer. This was, of course, the Black Patent Malt, and it allowed for the very dark beers that we know today.

Other people point to 1820, the year in which Guinness changed the name of his Extra Stout Porter to the Extra Stout. But given that he was still advertising “Stout Porters” in 1836, I’m unconvinced. Honestly, like many developments in early brewery history, I’m not sure that there was any single watershed moment—more like, small changes over time added up to create the stout as a distinguishable style, albeit one still very closely linked to the porter.

In any case, most “stouts” from the late 1700s-early 1800s are what we would consider Irish or “dry stouts,” so called for the drying sensation they impart on the finish. This resulted from a small addition (no more than 10% of the malt used) of barely that was roasted, but unmalted—this left flavours similar to dark roasted coffee or dark chocolate. There are, of course, other styles of stouts. Oatmeal stouts are richer and fuller due to the addition of oatmeal to the grain bill. Milk Stouts, as we know well here at Black Creek, are sweet and silky from added lactose. Imperial stouts were originally brewed for export to the Russian imperial court, and they are stout stouts indeed, running up to 10% ABV. You can even have potato stouts! (I’m looking forward to seeing that one again, incidentally.)


As to the adage that a stout is a “meal in a glass”…well, remember that down in the historic brewery, our stout only runs about 4.5% ABV, and calorically speaking, stouts just aren’t significantly heavier. So, even post-holidays, you should be fine to enjoy one every now and then.

Especially if it’s accompanied by a good book.



Maine Musings

Hello, beer-lovers!

I hope that you are enjoying your winter! As I occasionally do over Black Creek’s off-season, I’ve fled south to the United States, specifically to Maine. So sure, I’m in the south (relative to Toronto, anyway), but it’s even colder here.

Considering its tempestuous temperance history (the 1851 “Maine Law” made Maine the first completely dry state), it’s both delightful and surprising to find that twenty-first century Maine has a vibrant craft brewing scene, much of it centred around the city of Portland. According to 2013 figures from the Brewers’ Association, there are 47 breweries in Maine. That same year, beer sales in Maine trumped blueberry sales. Which perhaps sounds odd, until you realize just what a big deal blueberries are down here.

Seriously, they're everywhere.
Seriously, they’re everywhere.

It’s a collaborative, community-minded beer scene as well. Starting in 1986, Maine’s brewpubs and craft breweries united to form the Maine Brewers’ Guild. An active player in Maine tourism, the guild organizes beer festivals, lectures, even a brand-new beer school. Plus, a significant number of the beers I’ve seen down here source their ingredients locally, with Maine-grown hops and barley.

Community, enthusiasm, and local ingredients: no wonder the beer here is so good. Maybe it’s the “New England Vacationland” feeling down here, but it makes me wonder if other parts of the craft brewing industry might learn something from this approach. I ran across an article recently which prompted a lot of discussion: the author argued that a trend towards excessively hoppy beers was ruining craft brewing.

You can read that article here. I had a number of problems with it, starting and ending with the judgmental tone (“Do friends let friends drink only pilsners?” Really?), and including the general omission of the very fine alternatives on the market. If anything, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of porters and stouts lately (granted, it’s winter, but still). The author surmises that hops mask off-flavours and flaws in the beer, their variety allows for extra experimentation, and it’s an easy way to differentiate craft beer from macrobrews.

Hops, hops, hops...
Hops, hops, hops…

Well, you can experiment with malt and yeasts as well, as we’ve seen done down here at Black Creek, and honestly, I think almost any craft ale is immediately distinguishable from a macrobrew at first sniff, hop-oriented or not.

I wonder if early craft beers were abundantly hopped because hops are easy to take to extremes. If you’re competing in a crowded marketplace, it’s perhaps more difficult to notice and market a beer that’s maltier, or yeastier. We like “-ers” when we compete. And hops are distinctive; they can’t really be mistaken for anything else. They hit the palate right away. And they linger on the palate too: that’s why we always serve our IPA last.

So you make a beer that’s hoppier than the next guy’s. You make a beer that’s more alcoholic, because we want the bang for our buck, right? And suddenly, you have a beer that’s hoppier and more alcoholic, so it’s probably an…


This is theorizing, anyway. But from my research (cursory as it regrettably is) I don’t see that spirit of competition here in Maine. I see a group of brewers who don’t necessarily want to be better than the other guy. I see a brewing community in which each brewery wants to make the best product it can.

There is a difference here, one as rich and satisfying as chocolate malt.


PS. A look at what I’ve been drinking this week (not shown: D.L. Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale- really nice amber).

Scottish Ale (Gritty's)
Scottish Ale (Gritty’s)
Coal Porter (Atlantic Brewing Co.)
Coal Porter (Atlantic Brewing Co.)

Happy 2015!

From all of us, to all of you, Happy New Year from the Black Creek Historic Brewery!


Know what’s fun for the New Year? Resolutions. This year, I’m resolving to expand my palate: I’ve spent a good amount of time with American, Canadian, and British ales. There’s a whole world of beer out there, and I’m looking forward to trying more! Especially those witbiers.

Which should help me with my second resolution: achieving my very own Artisan’s badge on Untappd. Though, honestly, I’m only 13 beers away, so the Master’s badge (tasting 200 different brews) is probably the one to aim for!

What are your resolutions for this year?

Have a safe, responsible, and Happy New Year!