Sometimes when I sit down with a pint of my favorite local ale, I stare into its clear, rubyish depths and think I can see a world in that glass. That world will open for you at Mississippi Market’s upcoming class, Gluten-Free Brewing with Northern Brewer (Saturday, September 24). This isn’t simply a class for people trying to avoid glutinous grains: it’s a class for everyone interested in global traditions of brewing.
Those of us who grew up in Europe or its former colonies know beer chiefly as a marvel brewed from malted barley and adjuncts like rye and oats. But that’s only part of the story: beer is and long has been a global player, a part of global trade as a finished ferment and as the grains that go into making it.
Barley is a temperate-region crop: it grows from the Mediterranean north into Russia and Scandinavia, across North America, northern China and Japan, and in the southern latitudes of South America, southern Africa, and Australia. But consider the wide swath of our planet not taken in by these extremes of latitude: throughout the tropics and the subtropics, barley, rye, and oats cannot be grown. Humans living in these regions brewed beer using other grains and plants long before Europeans brought the grains and the brewing traditions that support barley-based beers.
Interestingly, unlike barley, oats, and rye, none of the tropical sugar sources contains gluten. So for those of you who can’t tolerate gluten-producing grains, the brewing traditions of half the world await you—no compromises, no intricate detours or complex substitutes like those used in most gluten-free baking. Instead, you will discover what much of the world has always known: beer can be tastily and easily brewed from substances other than those used in northern brewing traditions. And for those of you who are simply interested in the rest of the world’s brewing traditions, you’ll find beers made from fruits and tropical grains tasty and fun to produce.
You needn’t look beyond North America to find other brewing traditions: before Maximilian briefly occupied the throne of Mexico in the 1860s, bringing Viennese brewers with him, indigenous people were brewing pulque from agave, that spiky, blue-gray desert plant. Further south, chicha was brewed from corn, cassava, and other sugar sources.
Indigenous brewers on the vast continent of Africa have used many substrates for their beers before the arrival of European colonists: palm, banana, millet, sorghum, maize, ginger, and honey. Brewers in southern Asian relied principally on rice and glutinous rice and used mold starters rather than yeast to make traditional rice beers like takju (Korea), tapuy (Philippines), and brembali (Indonesia), while northerly Asian beers were made from rice or millet. In northwestern India, for example, millet became the basis for the traditional beer janr.
Much of the flavor people associate with beer is that of the hops added to the brew, and you can add hops to any beer to ape the flavor found in barley-based ones—it’s the taste equivalent of green tomato or Ritz cracker pies: if you add the usual spices and sweeteners associated with apple pie to them, few people can tell the difference. And so it is with beers: you can make a hyper-hoppy IPA with sorghum or millet rather than barley.
If hoppiness isn’t your thing, consider the virtues of ginger beer, which to this day is exceptionally popular as a homebrew in countries that raise ginger as a cash crop (Caribbean island nations, for example). My first brew in 1968 was ginger beer, and what it lacked in eye appeal (it starts out milky, though it ends up clear), it made up in flavor and enthusiastic ferment.
In short, look just about anywhere in the world, and you will find luscious, complexly flavored beers, only some which are based on grains containing the precursor proteins to gluten. Join us for an afternoon exploring some of these alternatives to barley-based beers. If you can cook, you can brew—and if you brew, you’re going to want to explore the world’s other brewing traditions.