Coeliac disease affects at least 1 in 100 people in the UK and in Europe with even more people being gluten-intolerant or on a gluten-free diet for other reasons.
Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, rye and barley. Some people with Coeliac
Disease are also sensitive to oats. The answer here may seem obvious as this is essentially a list of the main ingredients of beer but it’s actually not quite as simple as that.
As with many foods; there are alternative ingredients that can be used to make beer without using any gluten as well as ways of removing almost all of the gluten from the beer.
There are actually two types of “gluten-free” beer; truly gluten-free beer that is not made with any gluten containing ingredients and gluten-removed beer which is essentially an ordinary beer which has had the gluten removed. This can be an issue for people with coeliac disease because both of these types can be labelled as gluten-free on their packaging even though only one can be guaranteed as safe for coeliacs.
To make a truly gluten-free beer, the simplest and most effective way is just to not use any ingredients that contain gluten. You can brew beer with alternatives to barley or wheat; common alternatives are gluten-free oats, rice, maize, quinoa, sorghum and more. As these will become the main ingredients though, the taste and mouth-feel of the final product will be different to a normal beer.
There are plenty of options for substituting the glutenous ingredients and with demand higher than ever; more and more breweries are developing new beers to cater for it. Gluten-free beer like this is perfectly safe for people with Coeliac Disease as gluten has not been in the product at any stage of the process.
If you wanted a beer made with the traditional ingredients (barley and wheat) for the authentic taste and feel then there are ways of retrospectively removing the gluten from the product.
A lot of the gluten from the ingredients will be removed naturally during the fermentation process and then we use a process called hydrolysis which further breaks down the proteins in the beer.
Unfortunately this could leave trace amounts of gluten in the product which are hard to test for as 20ppm (parts per million) is the lowest amount of gluten that can be accurately detected with the currently available scientific tools.
In the UK only foods that contain 20ppm or less of gluten can be labelled gluten free and for most coeliacs this is fine but some can be activated by much less than that.
Generally gluten-removed beer is fine for people who are gluten-intolerant or on a gluten-free diet but it is not necessarily safe for coeliacs as you can’t guarantee that it contains no gluten at all. There will always be a chance that it could have up to 20ppm present even with a gluten-free label.
Gluten-free beer is now widely available and high quality with plenty of options available. There’s no reason you can't enjoy a few beers with your friends even if you’re on a gluten free diet. However it is important to know whether the beer has used gluten-containing ingredients if you are particularly sensitive to gluten.