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But do gluten-free beers really taste all that different from their conventional counterparts? I wasn't so sure, which is why I organized a blind taste test. What would happen if you took a group of "regular" beer drinkers and served them 6 samples of beer all brewed in a similar style—one beer of which was gluten-free? Would the gluten-free beer really stand out as "different" from the rest of the lineup?
The results may surprise you.
For my experiment, I assembled a panel of six lager beers: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Budweiser, Brooklyn Lager, Yuengling Traditional Lager, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and for the gluten-free option, Bard's.
I similarly rounded up 7 beer tasters, some men, some women, some experienced beer drinkers, some not, all of them gluten-eating (and thus, none of them gluten-free).
The "rules" were simple. I told them that they'd be tasting a flight of 6 beers all brewed in a similar style. An unspecified number of those beers—from none to all or somewhere in between—were gluten-free. For each beer, they should take tasting notes, commenting on the color, nose, taste, finish, and mouthfeel of the beers. For each beer, they should also answer "yes" or "no"—Do they think the beer is gluten-free? Finally, I asked them to rank the beers from most to least favorite.
Then I sat back and watched, and things got interesting.
Is the beer gluten-free?
On the question of whether or not they thought individual beers were gluten-free, only one beer—Sam Adams—escaped any votes. No one thought Sam was gluten-free. Every other beer received at least 2 votes for gluten-free status. And here's the real kicker: Bard's was not the highest vote getter!
More tasters (5 of 7) thought Yuengling was a gluten-free beer. Bard's ended up in a three-way tie with Budweiser and PBR ... 4 of 7 tasters thought each of those three beers were gluten-free.
This should immediately shatter the myth that gluten-free beer tastes "different" than conventional beer. Bard's clearly did not stand out as "other." It was surrounded by barley beers, and yet gluten-eating-and-drinking tasters voted just as frequently for barley beers as they did for Bard's when it came to guessing a beer's gluten-free status. In a sense, they couldn't tell the difference.
I suspect the results would have been equally interesting if I had phrased the question slightly differently, and instead said, "1 of the 6 beers you're tasting is gluten-free. Please guess which one you think it is." Based on the results of the Lager Lowdown, my best guess is that many of the tasters would have gotten it wrong. Score one for Bard's.
But how did the gluten-free beer rate?
As for where Bard's fell in the rankings from most to least favorite, the result was a split decision. Some tasters placed it in their bottom half, including one who ranked Bard's last, declaring it "only worth getting drunk on." On the other hand, another taster—who was quite surprised when I revealed the identities of the beer—rated Bard's their 2nd most favorite, behind only Sam Adams. Bard's beat out perennially popular barley-based lagers including Yuengling and Brooklyn Lager! Praise for Bard's included comments such as "nice color and good solid taste," "good mouthfeel and finish," "nicely balanced," "great smell," "hoppy," and "bitter undertones."
It turns out that, when you remove knowledge of a beer's gluten-free status, beer drinkers can have some pretty nice things to say about gluten-free brews.
The barley-based beers also faced split decisions among the tasters. For example, only one person placed Budweiser in their top half. Every other taster placed Bud near or at the bottom of their list. Opinion of PBR was also split. One taster used "urine" to describe its taste, while another noted that they were using PBR "as a palate cleanser between tasting the other beers."
As with the gluten-free status question, Sam Adams was the only one to escape persecution. Every single taster rated it his or her favorite.
The frequent split decisions, with individual beers rating both highly and poorly among tasters, just goes to show how much variability in taste there is in the beer-drinking world. What tastes like liquid gold to one person may taste like swill to another.
And so what have we learned? Two major lessons come to the fore: a) good gluten-free beers don't inherently taste "different" than their conventional counterparts, despite a commonly held perception to the contrary, and b) in blind tastings, gluten-free beers can rate quite highly against their barley-based peers.
So, the next time you're drinking a bottle of your favorite gluten-free suds, don't dare think for a second that your beer is inferior or otherwise unworthy. It can—and does—hold its own. Bottoms up!
Original image copyright Lodrakon | Dreamstime.com. Modified by Peter Bronski. Used with permission.