Gluten Free beers don't have to sacrifice flavor, and this Madison, WI brewery is out to prove it.
ALT Brew in Madison, WI is not your typical craft brewery, as you might have guessed by the name. Owner Trevor Easton, formerly an engineer, took a very systematic approach to creating a gluten-free brewery in 2013—originally so he could still share his craft-brewed creations with his wife after she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Initially set up to brew in a positive-pressure ‘clean room’ at a larger brewery, they made their first sales in early 2014, and moved to the facility and taproom in 2016.
“We don’t do the gluten-removed or gluten-reduced versions,” Trevor says. “In those cases, some of the allergen is still there even though it’s denatured.”
Instead, he and his team of 11 staff operate what he describes as a nano-brewery and taproom that’s 100% gluten-free. They’ve worked up a range of brews made with malted grains like corn, millet, and oats that are naturally gluten-free, processed by Colorado-based Grouse Malt House, which only works with gluten-free grains. As you might imagine, this is not a commonly available service, and Trevor values his relationship with Grouse, who he found through AGC member the Craft Maltsters Guild.
“They’re always developing new grains for brewing, new roasts, and new techniques to get different flavor profiles,” he explains. “[Founder] Twila has tons of information on her grain sources, and sends us samples that we use in our ‘bulb’ brews—our experimental lines—and has visited the brewery.”
ALT Brew was the second ever dedicated gluten-free brewery in the country—and the list has risen fairly quickly to now 17, not counting the breweries that have gluten-reduced offerings. To be sure, there’s a growing audience of gluten-sensitive consumers eager to seek out these brews, but the secret that Trevor is always happy to divulge is that GF beer can be delicious. He often enjoys that moment when people come in because of necessity, and discover that it’s more than a sub.
“They don’t believe how good it is,” Trevor says. He encourages anyone–even those who can eat and drink gluten—to try his beers, and see for themselves.
A quick primer, if you’re not familiar: most beer starts with malted grain—typically barley, because of how well suited it is for brewing. Barley has lots of sugars and enzymes that work together for good fermentation, and hulls that help with the filtration process; even rye and wheat are not as efficient in malting and fermentation. Gluten-free grains used for brewing—millet, oats, buckwheat, corn, rice, and they’ve even tried teff—all have carbohydrates (sugars) but in lesser quantities.
“We’ve been doing recipe development with different adjuncts, exploring ways to brew without sorghum, which can sometimes have an unpleasant aftertaste that many people associate with gluten-free beer,” Trevor says. They’ve sought out regionally grown ingredients where possible, but for brewers, it isn’t just a matter of finding a farmer. Because beer is made mostly with malted grains to aid the fermentation process—and ALT Brew needs not only locally malted grains, but those that have come out of a gluten-free facility—their options are limited. (See our profile of Teffola/Tenera Grains to learn more about some of the challenges of cleaning and handling gluten-free grains on a smaller scale.)
Trevor was introduced to AGC by fellow Madison brewer Jessica Jones of Giant Jones Brewing Company, also unique as one of about 20 certified organic breweries in the country. While Trevor isn’t currently able to use grains grown within the network, he still benefits from being able to talk with others working toward the bigger picture of a diversity of sustainably-produced ingredients. Brewers who choose different paths of connecting with unique, specialized grains along the beverage chain have lots more in common with each other than with those who are buying standard commodity ingredients. “We’ve always been interested in trying to find farmers with alternative grains, and we can test it for gluten, but it’s hard to do grain on a small scale and without the capacity for having those grains malted, even harder to scale up.”
Rewiring business and community connections is integral to this brewery. Alt Brew is a gathering spot for a regional Celiac group, a monthly book club, and the brewery’s Mug Club has over two dozen members. They just released their Blood Orange Sour, and on March 16 are holding their next big release, a stout produced in collaboration with Rusty Dog Coffee.
“We’re always cycling through different styles of beer,” and adds that they have 10 on tap at any given time. They’ve got two award-winning brews: 1808 Robust Porter and Copperhead Copper Ale, in the Gluten Free Beer categories from the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. To learn where you can find these creative concoctions, check out this list.
Stay in touch with their progress and path toward regional grain sourcing via their monthly newsletter or social media, using the links below.