What is Light, Gluten-Free and Near Beer?
Contributed by the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre's Andrew Nguyen.
What is “light beer”?
Light beer is a popular beer style made by several breweries in Canada. Many beer drinkers prefer a lighter tasting beer or sometimes a light beer suits the occasion better, like grabbing drinks with friends after hockey practice.
The word ‘light’ generally refers to relatively low body and reduced calories, rather than the beer’s colour. However, Health Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations also define extra light beer and light beer according to alcohol content: from 1.1-2.5% alcohol by volume for extra light beer and 2.6-4.0% for light beer.
Making light beer is fundamentally the same as making regular beer but it can go beyond basic home brewing knowledge. During the brewing process, a technique is used called decoction mashing. This is a way to conduct multi-step mashes without adding more water or applying heat to the mash tun. It is a process that suppresses enzymes, requiring time and attention. A brewer can then kiln the malt at a higher temperature and kill the malt’s enzymes to produce a lower calorie beer.
Adjuncts like maltose syrup, maize and rice can be added in the brewing process as an alternative source of carbohydrate to produce lighter beers and alter the flavour profile of the beer.
What is “gluten-free beer”?
Barley, a key ingredient in beer, is not gluten-free and thus it is possible that many beers brewed from barley malt may contain some gluten-like component in low levels.
To produce beers that could be suited for celiacs and anyone suffering from gluten sensitivities and dietary restrictions, brewers turn to barley alternative grains like quinoa, sorghum, millet and buckwheat. Brewers can produce a wide variety of gluten-reduced styles from lagers to stouts, using these ingredients.
Health Canada handles beer and gluten-free claims in 2 ways1 splitting beer made from grains containing gluten (1) and beer made from non-gluten containing grains (2).
1. Beer made from grains containing gluten
Includes: barley, wheat, oats, rye
It is the position of Health Canada that there is uncertainty around the absolute removal of gluten from beer or beer-like products made using barley, oats, rye, triticale, wheat or their hybridized strains. For this reason, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency objects to the use of a “gluten-free” claim on beers produced using these grains.
However, they do not object to the use of the statement “This product is fermented from grains containing gluten and [process or treated or crafted] to remove gluten. The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten”. In this case, breweries must be prepared to provide evidence to substantiate their claim.
2. Beer made from non-gluten containing grains
Including: quinoa, sorghum, millet, buckwheat
Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency do not object to the use of a “gluten-free” claim on a beer-like product derived from a non-gluten grain so long as it meets the requirements outlined for “gluten-free” claims. This includes ensuring there is no cross-contamination with gluten during process.
As it stands, these products are not considered beer and are labelled as an unstandardized “alcoholic beverage”.
Inquirers should always consult their doctor and/or the medical community for advice.
What is "NA", non-alcoholic or “near beer”?
While it may not be your drink of choice, there are many reasons to try a non-alcoholic beer. Perhaps you are the designated driver and do not want to drink any alcohol. Non-alcoholic beer (or “near beer” or “NA beer” as it is sometimes called, goes through almost the full process of a normal beer. The added step is, you guessed it, alcohol is removed from the final product.
There are a few techniques brewers apply to remove alcohol. A popular way is through heating. Fermented beer is heated to a specific temperature and held there until the solution becomes 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. To minimize any loss of flavours that may occur some breweries use vacuum distilling, a method where the pressure above the solution is reduced to less than its vapor pressure causing the most volatile liquids to evaporate.
Another common technique is reverse-osmosis. This is a method where beer is passed through a filter with pores so tiny that only water, alcohol and a small number of volatile acids can pass through. The alcohol is distilled out of the alcohol-water solution using conventional methods and the water and remaining acids are added back into the mix on the other side of the filter.
Following these techniques, a brewer is not quite done because the beer is flat. Typically beer carbonates itself as it concludes the fermentation process inside its container. When yeast, a key ingredient in beer, metabolizes sugar into alcohol, one of the by-products is CO2, which makes the beer bubbly. The brewer’s non-alcoholic beer has no more yeast and isn’t fermenting. To solve this, many breweries will inject their beer with CO2 during the kegging, bottling or canning process.
- Allergen-Free, Gluten-Free and Precautionary Statements, Gluten-Free Clams, 2016. Available at: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/allergens-and-gluten/eng/1388152325341/1388152326591?chap=2#s6c2. Accessed March 6, 2017.