Sorry, celiacs, but gluten-free beers suck. Try as you might, you won’t find a gluten-free beer that even remotely mimics the flavor of real beer. In fact, even the effort to make a gluten-free beer is slightly suspicious, like trying to create fat-free bacon or an alcohol-free whiskey. It’s better to give up the idea of gluten-free beer and move on to superior drinks. The great news for those who suffer with celiac disease is that apples don’t contain gluten proteins. Plus, they can be crafted into a variety of intoxicating beverages that span the entire drinking spectrum.
Take ciders, for instance. I know—you’re thinking of those sugary ciders that a certain generation of English girls guzzled like bottles of Zima. Maybe you tried one on a vacation, and maybe you weren’t pleased. But those old-fashioned pub ciders were tailored to a specific youth market that needed a pub alternative to the impenetrably black, room-temperature beers. Nowadays, rather than offering a sugary counterpoint to the hop bomb, some new cideries are actually taking their cues from craft breweries.
Just like those trendy cask-conditioned ales, Island Orchard Brut Cider spends some time aging in toasted oak casks. The result is crisp and quaffable and a very good partner to food (think sour beer or Kolsch). Eve’s Cidery, in New York State’s Finger Lakes region, bottles a cider using tart Northern Spy apples, which yield a crisp, citrusy minerality that pairs perfectly with seafood—just try that with English pub cider (or, for that matter, gluten-free beer). Also in New York State—in the Hudson Valley’s own Wurtsboro—Aaron Burr Cidery is fermenting Homestead Apple Cider using only naturally occurring yeasts. The resulting beverage is complex, with some serious tartness joining the expected sugar of apples.
But if you really crave the flavors of beer (and not just its fizzy crispness), try the Bad Seed Cider Company’s IPC (Imperial Pale Cider), out of Highland, New York. The IPC is brewed with American ale yeast and grapefruit-scented Cascade hops. Harvest Moon Cidery’s Heritage Hops Hard Cider makes use of loose hops of a strain historically grown near Harvest Moon’s cidery in Cazenovia, New York (that’s near Syracuse and Utica). Hops, the primary flavoring agent in beer, are flowering strobili. Neither cereals nor grains, hops are gluten-free.
There is some disagreement among those in the celiac community about whether the spirits distilled from cereals and grains—namely, all whiskeys—still contain gluten proteins after distillation. Unfortunately, the FDA’s definition of “gluten-free” does not apply to alcohol (though many who suffer with celiac disease report symptoms after enjoying a glass). Currently, Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery spinoff Black Dirt Distillery is aging its distilled apple brandy in newly charred oak barrels, just like Tennesee bourbon. The charring process literally caramelizes the sugars in the wood, creating the classic bourbon flavors—caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla. All of these leech into the Black Dirt Apple Brandy, which, though it drips off the tap as a clear, very powerful hooch, winds up golden and bourbon-like after six or seven years in the charred cask. The Black Dirt is an excellent gluten-free option for those who fear the repercussions of a glass of whiskey. Drink up, all you celiacs: Apples are your new best friends.