In a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column I profiled Burning Brothers Brewing, Minnesota’s first and only gluten-free brewery. For the column I did an extended interview with co-founder and head brewer Dane Breimhorst. We talked in-depth about what it means to live with Celiac disease, how gluten-free beers differ from other beers, and the challenges of crafting gluten-free brews that actually taste like beer. What follows is the nearly-full content of that interview.
Let’s start with your background. What’s the path you took to get here?
I grew up in a small town. And I actually grew up hating beer. In this small town the only beers were a lot of the larger brand beers, and I just didn’t care for them that much. I thought that’s how beer tasted. I thought that was it. I drank it on the farm all the time because after a hot day there is nothing like an ice cold lager. But what I did like to do was make wine. So I started off at eighteen making country wines. If it rotted I made wine with it. Then somebody had this beer kit at a garage sale. It was one of those Mr. Brews or something like that.
Add water and stir?
Add water and stir, ferment it and wait. And it tastes horrible. But I was curious to see if I could make it taste better, because I was also really into cooking. I used to run a little gourmet club when I was in high school and I would ferment anything that fermented.
So it seems like fermentation has been a theme in your life.
Yup. If it rots you can ferment it. I didn’t care if it was grain or if it was dandelions or gooseberries. I didn’t care whatever the heck it was. I’d go to the grocery store and walk through the produce section going, “Wow, there’s a lot of wine in here.” I’m making everything into wine.
But so when I turned 21, I had a Red Hook Extra Special Bitter. I was hooked. All of a sudden I got something different and I started diving into it. Kölsch? I was like, “What is that?” There wasn’t a lot of literature on it and the internet wasn’t huge, so I just started dabbling and anything that looked weird I’d buy. At one point in time I became a stout fanatic to the point where we used to go see an Irish band play every Tuesday night and I would order a pitcher of Guinness and I would dunk my Oreos® in it all night long. And I got other people ordering pitchers of Guinness. All of a sudden you’d see people going into this Irish bar with Double Stuffed Oreos®. I mean people were sitting there listening to the band and dunking Oreos® in Guinness and drinking. It was a new fad in this particular pub. It lasted at least a month or two.
So from there I just started exploring brewing a little bit more. And then my friend Thom and I, we’ve been friends since we were nineteen, we both started thinking that we had enough knowledge of it on a small system, like a little 15-gallon, half-barrel, 20-gallon system, that we could make a brew on premises work. I think it’s a fantastic idea and if it’s marketed right I think that the Twin Cities could use another one. And I thought that if we opened one up in Northeast or over in that area that it would rock. So we wrote up a full business plan on it. We continued to brew. We started brewing together to see where we were both at. We priced it all out and had the business plan written, and we were about to execute it when we got slammed by a brick wall. I was diagnosed with Celiac and that was the end of that. Right away we looked at the business plan and said there’s just not the market for a gluten-free brew on premises and there’s no way that I could run a regular brew on premises without killing myself.
What exactly is Celiac disease?
Alright. So Celiac is an autoimmune disorder. Meaning that when my body ingests a certain amino acid protein strain found in a variety of grass that is the wheat family it triggers a self-attack. Wheat, barley, rye, spelt, all of those grasses are related to each other and they all contain gluten. Well, all grain contains a gluten protein, and that gluten is just a protective amino strain that protects the grain. This particular strain of gluten from that particular grass family affects some of us to where our bodies ingest it and it triggers a self-attack. So my body will actually attack itself and it will do so mostly in my small intestine. It destroys the small hairs that uptake nutrients and you actually become malnourished. So after I was tested, we actually had to go through a full test to see what my vitamin levels were and I was practically third-world country. We had to bump everything way back up again. And when I get sick I can tell because all of my nutrients go down and for the next couple of months I’m prone to any kind of illness because it’s an immune reaction. So for me it feels like the flu times ten, about 48 hours of nasty. Then about a week or two of recovery.
I know there are degrees of Celiac. Some people it’s fairly mild, some people it’s intense. You’re on the intense end of that spectrum.
This is what they’re trying to figure out. It doesn’t seem like it’s so much the severity of the actual disease itself, but the severity of the reaction, the outward reaction. Some people get nothing but a little bit of heartburn. That becomes chronic and of course it’s bad for the esophagus. But the problem is that they are still doing the same damage on the inside. So yeah, my symptoms are pretty severe. There are people out there that are much more severe than I am. My aunt has Celiac and she’ll actually break out in hives all over. I don’t. I just puke out of every orifice. And sit around in the fetal position for a while wishing I was dead. Then after that it’s alright.
So I notice that you were wearing rubber gloves at Winterfest.
I learned a lesson at Hops for Hunger. I was pouring beer all night at Hops for Hunger and I was drinking my beer as well. But as soon as you hand someone your glass, a lot of times they are going to rinse out that previous beer. The glass is soaking in beer. It’s all over everything. So it was all over my hands. So every single time I was drinking my beer I was rubbing more gluten onto my cup and into my mouth. It usually takes about 24 hours for the symptoms to really kick in. I was so bad. I hadn’t had that kind of reaction in a while. Unfortunately brew day doesn’t care about that. I think I did a 16 or 17-hour double brew run that day. It was just running back and forth from the bathroom to the brew floor just wanting to die. I mean, everybody helped. We all kind of chipped in. It was Thom and I for the most part and we just rocked it out. Then I went home, tried to get some sleep, and came right back in the next morning. Welcome to owning your own business. So now when I’m pouring we bring a box of gloves for me to wear.
Sticky hands are just part of a beer fest. You end up with beer all over everything.
I know. Actually, people were kind of whispering about it. “Oh my god, does he hate beer that much? Why is he wearing gloves?” I’m Burning Brothers. I have celiac. It will kill me.
So to get back, you had this business plan and you had to throw it out.
Yup. We were pretty bummed out about it. We weren’t quite in the position that we thought to open an actual package brewery. So I went out and bought pretty much every gluten-free beer that was on the market. Back then that was only three or four. I didn’t like them. They just weren’t my thing. I’ll never cut them down. I’ll never cut down any beer out there. It’s up to personal preference. But it wasn’t my thing. I didn’t like it and I was determined to make my own. I obviously know how to brew beer and so does Thom. So Thom was like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s see if we can brew a gluten-free beer.” We spent years trying. We threw the kitchen at it. We were trying different spice combinations, anything just to mask that sorghum flavor.
So my take on gluten-free beers, most of them, is that you can’t approach it thinking that it’s going to taste like beer. If you accept that and judge it on its own merits, then some of them aren’t so bad. But you have to rid yourself of that expectation.
We kind of approached it that way at first, but I said why not raise our standards up and say this should taste like beer. I want to make it as close to beer as possible. And not just beer, but I want to make it a well-balanced beer, as balanced as I can possibly make it. That was my thing. I missed beer
So what do you have to do to make a gluten-free beer? What’s different than regular barley beer?
You cannot use barley, wheat, rye, spelt, all the main ingredients in beer as we know it today.
So what do you use instead?
I use an ancient grain, which some of the first records of beer out of Northern Africa were thought to be made out of, a grain called sorghum. It’s the primary grain in our flagship beer. That’s a 100% sorghum beer. I also use malted buckwheat and malted millet. I’m trying to experiment a little bit with teff, which is kind of a nutty grass. Wild rice as well. I’m not big on the rice, however. I’ve had a couple of companies ask me if I could sample their malted brown rice. But I always get a piece of paper with it that says “Please don’t feed this to people with celiac because there is gluten in it.” It’s malted on the same malting floor as barley. It’s stored in the same warehouse. I’m like, well then it’s full of it. Are you kidding me? I almost yelled at a couple of suppliers for bringing it into my brewery, because this is s gluten-free facility. We don’t allow it in the facility in any way. So now I’m taking some of that and very carefully packaging it and sending it out to my maltstress in Colorado and saying, “can you give me 20 or 30 pounds of this? I just want to try it to see what the flavor profile is.” That’s the big thing with gluten-free. You’re using different grains, but yet you want to try and get a lot of the same flavors as you would from barley.
So is the brewing process the same with those grains? Will they convert their own starch to sugar or do you have to use enzymes?
They convert. I have to use no enzymes whatsoever. They actually convert very easily, so they’re a little bit more forgiving. Sorghum isn’t. Sorghum is a pain. Sorghum is an absolute pain. That’s why most places will just extract the sugar by adding enzymes instead of using the malting procedure. They just grind it, add enzymes and pull out the sugars that way. But millet and buckwheat are easy. And quinoa as well, which if the price ever goes down on it we’ll run a batch. If I do end up running it, then we’ll do small, one-barrel batches of a tripel, because that’s my Everest. I’m pretty sure I have a recipe down that I can do it, but that will be quinoa, buckwheat, and millet all together with no sorghum in it.
So sorghum to me does have a particular flavor when it’s made into beer. It’s kind of all at once oddly almond/floral and then cider – like green apple cider. But your beers do not have that. There is a little bit of that floral/almond in there, but not as intense as in a lot of sorghum beers. And I don’t get any of that cider character. If this beer is 100% sorghum, why don’t I get that?
So when we were trying to do gluten-free beers at first, we were failing miserably. We just couldn’t do it. We stopped and took a step back and thought, “We’re starting to prove that Einstein’s theory is correct. We’re just doing the same thing over and over again. We’re adding spices. We’re adding this and that. We’re adding as many adjuncts as we can to try to mask flavors. Instead of trying to mask flavors, why don’t we tear it apart?”
You know, I used to be a fine-dining cook. I’m very good at pulling flavors apart palate-wise, at least for food. So I had to start training myself. I’m always trying to look at beer in that sense. With beer and with wine I’m always trying to pull the palate apart and taste it that way. But I kind of stepped back from the beer thing and I went more for cooking. The flavor profiles that I’m looking for are this, this, this, and this. These are the flavor profiles that are good about straight sorghum and these are the ones that are not. So how do we get rid of the ones that are bad? Then I tried to figure out what I had. As much as I liked brewing and fermenting, I was no yeast expert. I knew that different kinds of yeast do different things and give different flavors and different reactions, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what happens if you push a yeast here or there. I knew about steam beers, but why does that action happen? Why does it change the flavor so profusely? I started playing around with yeast at that point. I started playing around with hops, completely throwing the books out, throwing out the guidelines and asking, okay so how do I change this profile? I have to add this profile to it and that will neutralize it and make it inert. You know, I add a bitter to a sweet. I add a spice to a sweet.
So working kind of like I would do with food pairings, looking for interactions that will tone down certain things and bring out others.
Exactly. It took a while to really wrap my head around it and start walking down that edge. Now I’m so specific that I’ve kilned my own grains and malted my own grains. It comes to me already malted now, but it’s the exact same thing, so I already know what it’s going to taste like. I can actually send my maltster a sample of my particular roast and she will match it. So we started playing with that. I started pushing yeast a little bit too, trying to get some flavors that might be considered off in other beers. We actually look for them, because they contradict some of the flavors in the sorghum that we want gone. So clever use of hops and yeast is the biggest thing. Fermentation temperatures. How fast I cycle through a fermenter.
So that kind of gets to something you said to me earlier, that yeast is your best friend. Is that primarily the reason?
I’ve always been fascinated by fungus. When I was younger I used to grow mushrooms. Not the hallucinogenic ones. I loved growing edible, culinary mushrooms. It’s hard to find hedgehog mushrooms. It’s hard to find black chanterelle mushrooms up here. And there’s no way I’m going to pay that much for portabellas or creminis. I realized that I could get free spore prints from universities. Growing mushrooms was one of the most difficult things I ever learned how to do. You almost have to do it in a lab. I actually have a glove box and I’m taking spore prints and I’m inoculating plates. It’s like working with yeast. I feel very comfortable with it.
Is there really a big enough market for a totally gluten-free brewery?
Yes. Absolutely. Right now the gluten-free industry in the United States is a 3.8 billion dollar industry. So it’s huge. And the number of cases is increasing yearly. The reason why is not because the number of people who have the genetic code for celiac are increasing, it’s that people are more aware of it and the tests are getting easier. The blood tests are actually pretty decent now. When I first went in, the blood tests were crap. You pretty much had to do an endoscopy and that scares people away from getting tested.
In some states you can be certified that you have celiac. I don’t know what that means to be certified celiac. “Wow! I have a sucky disease and I’m certified that I have a sucky disease! I can’t eat your food anymore! This sucks! Yay me!” But now more and more people are getting tested. That’s one of the things they are testing kids for now. It’s part of the allergen test.
That’s one of the reasons that we want to come out with the beers that we want to come out with. We want to come out with an American pale ale because to me when you’re trying to get into beers and you’re really exploring, there are beers that are better to start off with than others. And I think that the drinkability of American pale ale, especially with the citrus, it makes it a really easy summer beer to drink and it’s a beer that you can drink all year round. And it’s easier for those who aren’t hugely into craft beers. I mean, I have an American premium lager recipe. I’ve brewed it. It tastes like an American premium lager. It’s a pain to do, but I don’t mind doing it. But at the same time I’m like, “Do I want to put out an American premium lager? Do I want to do it?” I might eventually. I don’t know. As I got older I found a place for the American lager – before I got diagnosed. I actually really liked it when I went out fishing. That’s why I want to put it out. I want to put out a fisherman’s eight-pack. Just in cans. An eight-pack kind of thing.
You wouldn’t be the only one. A lot of craft brewers now are starting to put out American style lagers. Town Hall has one.
You can have fun with them. You don’t have to rip out everything with rice solids. I want to see how straw-colored I can make mine. I want to make it as clear as possible, as straw-colored as possible. It’s a challenge to make. It’s a hard beer to make. It’s a stupid-hard beer to make gluten-free because there is so much in the flavor that you have to hold back.
There’s not a lot to mask the sorghum flavor.
The other really difficult one is one that Thom my business partner has challenged me to do, and I’m not sure how I’m going to do it, but he wants me to do an English mild session beer. Trying to get a sorghum beer down in the 2% range, low 3% range – I have a hard time keeping it as low as I do now just because your first instinct is to rip out as much of the sugar from the sorghum as possible. That’s how you’re going to get alcohol from doing that. But to actually try to keep it low and still keep the balance. I’m thinking it’s not going to be a sorghum beer, that’s for sure. It might be just straight buckwheat, and I’ll use a bit of millet just as a pale malt in there.
What about roasted grains?
It gives you a real biscuity flavor if you just use it straight without malting it. If you malt it first you get a lot more of the malt tones in there. It’s still hard to pull that malt flavor out. But when you just roast it there’s no backbone, but a lot of biscuit. You can almost taste the burnt toast in there. It’s good in certain beers.
I was playing around with different stout recipes. I still want to create different stouts, because as I said before, when I was younger I fell in love with stout. I’d like to get back and do a really nice porter and a really nice stout and dive into some of the darker beers, the meatier beers like that. I use roasted buckwheat in one of the stouts that I was working on. It came out pretty good. The best stout I did was with quinoa, but I can’t figure out how to brew it on a large scale and have people afford it. That would be a 750 ml for 30 bucks almost. I know there are people with celiac who would pay that, but at the same time, I just don’t want them to have to. So it will take some time. Right now I’m working on something that’s just as good but doesn’t have quinoa in it.
That would be a hard sell. At 30 bucks you’re in the range of something like Deus Brut des Flandres.
I’m not up to that. I can only strive.
Talking to you it’s clear how your cooking and culinary background translates into brewing. But how do you see the connection?
Well…my attitude on the brew floor. My assistants hate it. I go right back into the kitchen mentality. One of them, thank God, has spent half his life in a kitchen, so he knows what it’s like to be yelled at. There’s a separating line between the brew floor and out here. Out here it didn’t happen. Just forget about it. We made beer. But I get pretty ornery back there. It’s funny, because I revert right back to that. If somebody misses something that’s really, really small it’s the most irritating thing in the world. To me as a cook that’s huge. On the hot side it’s not as bad because you’re not really as worried about contamination and all that, but I’m still, “I didn’t say that lever! Grab that butterfly and God damnit open it now! Jesus fucking Christ, let me do it!” I’m whipping down from the platform and I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to go over here and CIP something.” Actually, I’m trying to work on it.
Having worked for ten years in restaurants, that sounds very familiar.
Exactly. And I want to do everything at once, too. Just like in a restaurant. When they walk into the cooler and grab one thing and come out, I’m like, “what the hell are you doing? You’ve got stronger arms than that, pile it on there. You can take three boxes of hops out of there at a time, for God’s sake. It’s under a hundred pounds. You can do it. You’re wasting time.” Even though it’s not affecting the brew time whatsoever. You’re waiting for water to boil. Nothing is going on besides cleaning the brewery and prepping things out there. It’s not a big rush. But I get that cook mentality where it’s a rush and get it on. When that door opens, this place better be pristine and you’re mise en place better be set out perfectly. And you better be ready to cook some real food. Everything is done to order, baby.
But I also do that with the recipes too. I have my own wait staff that comes by to try recipes that I think are getting to the point that they are good. They come by and grab a growler and tear this apart. Tear it apart. My family, I’ll go to them for compliments all day long. But I want some constructive criticism, damnit. Tear it apart. That’s the reason we entered our beer into so many competitions while we still could. We entered the competitions just to get the feedback from the judges. We never told them it was gluten-free. I don’t want it compared to other gluten free beers. I feel like I have a product that can stand up against other gluten free beers on the market. I more want a product that can stand up to or at least hold its own weight against some of the craft beers. There is no way that I can top some of them, but I’m going to keep trying.