Gluten, Malt Whisky and Beer

Being diagnosed with coeliac disease in recent years, I miss many things I used to enjoy to eat and drink. For coeliac sufferers gluten isn’t a lifestyle choice it has to be avoided at all costs. Coeliac is an autoimmune disease so the damage occurs from our own immune system attacking ourselves when it encounters gluten.

(c) 123RF and Hayes Ng

Gluten is the protein in Wheat and is used as a generic term for the similar proteins found in some other grains – Rye and Barley being it’s close cousins. Some also react to Oats!

People with coeliac disease get varied symptoms which are particular to themselves and can range from mild to very debilitating. The autoimmune reaction however seriously damages the small intestine and increases the risk of bowel cancer significantly so coeliacs must avoid gluten even if they are only aware of mild symptoms.

Gluten-free beer – can you drink it?

44463005 - beer and hops
(c) 123RF and Yuliya29

The grain used to make most beers is barley. Its protein is called hordein but it can be regarded as gluten. Brewers can create specifically “gluten-free beer” by chemically neutralising the protein to reduce its content to levels that most coeliac sufferers won’t react to. Or at least that’s the theory!

I’ve tried around half a dozen different gluten-free beers more than once and have decided I can’t tolerated gluten free beer at all. I get symptoms which are much like I did before I was diagnosed. My Dietician gave me the not so great news that some coeliac sufferers also react to gluten-free beer and that if they do it is likely that they are having an autoimmune reaction which is every bit as dangerous to them.

I’ve tried to understand why some coeliacs react to gluten-free beer and the suggestion is that although deglutenising the hordein protein in barley will show the beer to have gluten levels that are below 20ppm, there are still likely to be high levels of fragments of its DNA left in the beer. Some coeliacs, like me, are sensitive to these fragments.

Whisky – is it gluten-free?

18372945 - shot of a cut crystal glass containing brandy.
(c) 123RF and Igorr

Whisky is produced by first creating a product similar to beer in many ways and then distilling it. The distillation process drives off alcohol vapour which is then captured and condensed. Distillation should remove the gluten from the product and so whisky, or any spirit on its own, be drunk by coeliacs.

The flavour of whisky has a lot to do with what happens next. Whisky is stored in oak barrels that may have previously contained sherry or brandy. Typically the barrels are  burned on the inside which contributes to the complex flavours tasted in whisky.

Single-malt whisky is the safest form of whisky to drink and should be gluten-free. I asked Glenfiddich about their process; their whisky is gluten-free and they don’t use any barley based products to colour the whisky.

Colouring the whisky with barley derived colour can be an issue apparently. Single-malt whisky is nearly always safe from this practice. Blended whisky may have barley based colouring added as the producer creates a standard product in terms of taste and colour regardless of the originating whiskies that have gone into making it.

My conclusion

For me, I mostly drink wine and cider. Spirits such as single-malt whisky, brandy, gin and rum are fine for me but I won’t go anywhere near gluten-free beer!

About me: I’m just a coeliac sufferer in the UK trying to find my way and asking questions.