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.
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:
“…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…
“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.”
“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!
“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.