Beer Review 0080: New Planet Off Grid Pale Ale (A Primer on Gluten-Free Beer)

New Planet Beer, located in Boulder, Colorado, produces gluten-free beer. The company was founded by Pedro Gonzalez, who was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2003. Gonzalez, a fan of beer, teamed up with brewer friend Roy Emmons to make an acceptable tasting gluten-free beer.

A couple of things before I get into a review of this beer:

I’m breaking my reviewing rules for this beer, but for a good reason. As you might know, I don’t publish reviews of beer that score lower than 70 points on my rating scale — and this one doesn’t meet the mark — but for this case, I’m going to make an exception. With it being the new year, and with gluten-free beer on the way to becoming one of the biggest trends in beer in 2012 — I think publishing reviews of the first gluten-free products to hit the market will be an educational experience to follow how these beers evolve.

Now, a little bit about what gluten-free actually is: gluten-free is a diet which, of course, excludes gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and malts. All of those can be used as ingredients in beer, and 99.99% of all beer produced contains at least one of them. A gluten-free diet is the only acceptable treatment for Celiac Disease, which is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that is aggravated by gluten.

That’s as far as I am going to go, medically, because I am not a doctor. But “gluten-free” doesn’t actually mean completely free of gluten, it means “contains a harmless amount of gluten rather than a complete absence.” Now, there is a lot of controversy around what a “harmless level” of gluten actually is — but the United States defines “gluten-free” as food products with less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten.

So, in order for “gluten-free” beer to be gluten-free, the brew has to go through a certification process with the government, specifically the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). From what I understand, this process is quite costly, and also requires the beer to have printed nutrition facts on the label.

What’s used in the place of traditional ingredients? For this beer, Off Grid Pale Ale, the malts are replaced with sorghum and brown rice extract.

One more statement before I get into the review: I am not on a gluten-free diet, because I do not have Celiac Disease. (As if you couldn’t tell that already from all the other reviews on this website.) When I did this review, I didn’t put myself in the shoes of someone who might have the disease, I just rated the beer like any other. After reading the review, try to imagine what it would be like not being able to enjoy a beer, especially after having the good stuff some (if not most) of your life, then suddenly having that taken away. Yeah. That thought sucks, doesn’t it?

Remember that gluten-free beers are being made for people that would like to just enjoy a beer like the rest of us, and that these products are just beginning to get kicked off. If you ask any brewery what one of their top requests is, I’m sure a gluten-free alternative is near the top of the pile.

Onto the review:

The pour made for a decent but quickly diminishing head, rocky in texture, atop a clear bodied beer that was almost sparkling. The color of the liquid was a deep gold, not quite the amber described by the brewery on their website. There wasn’t a hint of any particles or sediment, and the lacing left behind after each sip was of outstanding quality, adhering to the glass like sticky soapy water.

The aromatics presented the tale of the missing malts. There was a bright citrus/grapefruit note up front, which was very nice. Then things started to go downhill in a hurry. There was a definite note of skunk, and bits of solvent and burning tire. This didn’t mesh with the grapefruit at all, making for a very funky nose for a Pale Ale. And as it got warmer, it seemed to get worse.

Taking a sip, the first flavor is a bit of very faint citrus, and then, WHAM! The tongue is greeted with an overwhelming bitterness that sends in the finish, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. The best way I can describe it is placing an uncoated aspirin on your tongue, letting it sit for a minute, and then chewing it up. It’s intensely bitter, and leaves your mouth dry and irritated after you finally get it down.

As this beer warmed, I started to get an apple note, but while nice, that could not redeem the overwhelming bitterness and complete lack of any other flavors.

Off Grid Pale Ale is a pretty bad beer. But I feel like I need to publish this, because I do believe we are going to see a wave of gluten free beers in 2012 — and if this is any early indication, breweries have a long way to go and lots of refinements to make to serve up enjoyable, palatable beer to our gluten-less friends.

New Planet Off Grid Pale Ale, 59 points. Price: $2.49 US for one twelve ounce bottle.

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