Beer Baron: Surly’s Hopshifter a low-gluten beer to geek out to

March 1, 2018 GMT

If you can’t or won’t consume gluten, your beer choices have never been better.

The high-water mark for gluten-free or -reduced beers moved even higher earlier this month when Minnesota’s Surly Brewing launched a new-to-us India pale ale called Hopshifter in cans. While this is an interesting beer for everyone, it’s also the biggest development in gluten-reduced beer in Wisconsin since Omission Beer was introduced here in 2012.

There are two ways to address beer’s gluten issue, and the difference between them is important.

The traditional manner of making gluten-free beer involves replacing the malted barley — the source of beer’s gluten — with other, non-gluten grains like sorghum or millet.

This was the method used to make the early gluten-free craft beers, including Lakefront’s New Grist, which was a Wisconsin-brewed pioneer in the field. It’s also is the modus operandi for Madison’s own gluten-free brewery, Alt Brew, which brews a variety of beers to emulate craft styles including Belgian tripel, IPA, porter and scotch ale.

Because no gluten goes in, these are regarded as 100 percent gluten-free and can be labeled as such. They’re the best bet if your diet just can’t have any gluten, period.

A more recent development is craft beer that’s brewed with the same malted barley that nearly every other beer is made with, then fermented with regular yeast and an enzyme called Brewer’s Clarex that breaks down gluten nearly completely. Brewer’s Clarex and similar enzymes have been around for more than 10 years, but Omission, an offshoot of Oregon’s Widmer Brothers Brewing, was the first to use it on a wide scale and then market its beer as gluten-reduced.

The enzyme has the effect of nearly entirely removing gluten with essentially zero effect on the flavor and body of the beer. Trace amounts of gluten remain, though many breweries tout levels that consistently test around or below 10 parts per million. That’s about half the threshold required by law for other products to be labeled gluten-free, but the feds won’t allow any beer made with gluten-containing grains to be labeled gluten-free. While people with the highest gluten intolerances should be very cautious, many people with garden-variety insensitivities or simply low-gluten preference have no trouble drinking them.

Wisconsin bottle shops have seen a modest proliferation of these beers, most of them carrying the slogan “crafted to remove gluten,” in recent years. New Belgium launched gluten-reduced Glutiny Pale Ale (along with a now-discontinued golden ale) nationwide in 2016.

And when Stone Brewing returned to the state in 2016, it brought its Delicious IPA, a Clarex-brewed beer with Lemondrop and El Dorado hops that for my money had been by far the best beer in the reduced-gluten space. Yes, a gluten-reduced beer that actually talks about its hops like every other craft beer does! I don’t worry about gluten but I occasionally buy Delicious, something I can’t say about any other beer in this segment.

While the true gluten-free beers are important for those who must have them or eschew beer altogether — and some of them are interesting in their own right — most of them frankly pale in comparison to beers made with malted barley, wheat and rye. There’s a reason beer developed over centuries this way: it tastes better.

This is why I see tasty craft-style beers like Omission, Delicious and Glutiny as critical to the big-tent craft beer movement. I believe there’s a beer for everyone; if they “don’t like beer” they just haven’t had the right one yet. Low-gluten beer that tastes as good as the full-gluten stuff brings great beer to people who couldn’t otherwise have it.

With Hopshifter, Surly goes deeper into the territory that Stone began to explore with Delicious: Gluten-reduced beer for beer geeks.

The story of Hopshifter begins more than a year ago with the Surly brewing team testing the use of Clarex to reduce a beer’s haze and improve clarity. Along the way Surly went all-in on its gluten-reducing properties, too, testing batches both on brewing merits and for gluten content. Surly says batches of Hopshifter — it’s been on draft in the Minneapolis taproom for about a year — have all come back from independent testing under 10 ppm of gluten.

But the really cool part of this is that Surly is using that gluten-reduced beer as a rotating hop showcase, with a dozen versions in the books so far. The iteration that hit shelves in early February uses the experimental Bru-1 hop (varieties often have such alphanumeric names before they get trade names like Cascade or Mosaic) as well as Citra and Chinook.

The next batch — the hops and packaging date are printed on the bottom of the can — will have a new array of hops the Surly brewers are playing around with.

Hopshifter only will be available in cans, as draft lines likely would be polluted with gluten from the previously tapped beer, Surly says. At its taproom, Hopshifter and Surly Pils, another gluten-reduced beer, remain on the same line at all times to avoid contamination.

Let’s take a look under the hood.


Style: American IPA

Brewed by: Surly Brewing, Minneapolis/Brooklyn Center, Minnesota

What it’s like: The point of gluten-reduced beers, versus gluten-free ones, is that they can be compared to other gluten-full craft beers. This version of Hopshifter (future ones will vary, of course) drinks like an IPA in the bright, tropical family like, say, Coronado’s Stingray.

Where, how much: Hopshifter comes in Surly’s four-pack of tallboy (16-ounce) can format, and most bottle shops will be around $9 to $10 per. If you don’t find Hopshifter among the Furious, Hell, Bender and the like, check the gluten-free section, which is sometimes sequestered away from the other beer.

The beer: Hopshifter pours a deep gold, modestly hazy (despite the Clarex) with a lovely aroma of what I imagine Hawaii to smell like, lightly floral and citrusy. I’d never heard of the Bru-1 hop, and some of Hopshifter’s more familiar mango and pineapple notes could be attributed to the Citra. But there’s some weird stuff here, too, that I assume must be Bru-1 expressing: underripe pear, a kind of rind-like citrus, some vague berries. Surly says it uses a “simple” malt bill on Hopshifter to keep the spotlight on the hops, and that mission is accomplished.

It’s light-bodied, bright and drinkable, with a modest bitterness that nevertheless builds as the glass is drained. There is absolutely no indication that anything is missing from this beer, and that this was an afterthought to the drinking experience is a huge credit to Hopshifter.

Booze factor: The 6 percent ABV is on the low end for what’s expected of an IPA.

The buzz: Brewing deconstructions that allow drinkers to experiment have become a hallmark of the craft beer experience over the past several years — the rotating-hop series perhaps foremost among them. But these simple luxuries have, by default, not been available to those with gluten sensitivities. I don’t think brewers thought, “Hey, you’ve got a couple gluten-reduced pale ales, that’s better than wine and New Grist,” but that’s kind of how it read.

That Surly is using its first wide-release gluten-reduced beer to also execute its first wide-release rotating-hop beer is commendable. I see it as bringing a kind of dignity to the gluten-sensitive beer drinker, that they’re worthy of some beer geekery too.

Bottom line: 4 stars (out of 5)