October 23, 2018

Using Sorghum in Homebrew

There's a product that we carry at Northern Brewer which occasionally gets some attention from customers. Usually, this attention is a begrudging acknowledgment of anticipated frustration, and it is directed towards White Sorghum syrup. This is a high maltose, gluten-free extract syrup made from sorghum by Briess Malt in Chilton, WI.

When Northern Brewer Milwaukee first opened, much ado was made about developing a "good" gluten-free beer with this extract. The ado was shortly abandoned, as the beer remained cloudy in the carboy, even after weeks of conditioning. The batch, something resembling the Extra Pale Ale kit, also had a very distinct, slightly sour, slightly sweet, entirely strange flavor. Hope was lost, resignations were declared, and the standard line for people seeking gluten-free beer became either "good luck" or "have you thought about wine/mead/cider?"

That was until recently, when I made something in the vein of the Houblonmonstre Tripel IPA (Houblon Chouffe). It was a real beauty - 9.15 lbs Pilsen LME, 2 lbs corn sugar, bittered with Columbus (and an ounce of Strisselspalt I had lying around - an appeasement to my constant butchering of the French language), finished with Centennial and Saaz, dry hopped with Summit, Amarillo, and more Saaz, capped off by a nice bit of water treatment to really punch the sulfate level up. Dangerously delicious, it finished around 9% ABV, and even received compliments from veteran kit winemaking expert Tim Vandergrift. All this is not so much to toot my own horn, but to expose the scale and grandeur of my revelation: to make a good gluten-free beer, simply pull out all the flavor-inducing stops.

In this case, those would be:

  • Water treatment - use of Gypsum to enhance the crispness and dry finish, and to give the hops some "punch." An old trick that put the pale ale producers of Burton-Upon-Trent on the map - and they didn't even have to add any Gypsum!
  • Yeast selection - phenols and esters, in the right balance, can really hide slight imperfections in a malt bill, and certain yeasts are known for their tendency to produce esters that are very complimentary to common American hop varieties. In this case, Wyeast's 3522 - Belgian Ardennes provided really nice pear and apple esters, with a slight touch of phenols to round out the alcohol and drive the tart finish.
  • Alcohol content - this ties into yeast handling and selection, but the right kind of alcohol production can also help to provide a distinctive sweetness that can be really pleasant. See also: Russian imperial stouts with ridiculous amounts of dark-roasted grains that would be otherwise undrinkable. This also ties into a dry finish, as the extent to which the yeast is able to digest sugar increases the digestibility of the beer. Residual sugar in a sorghum-based beer would most likely result in more of the slightly "off" flavors common to the product.
  • Hops - OK, so this isn't entirely necessary, at least not to the extent of Tripel IPA levels. I'm not even that huge of a hop head. However, when it comes to covering up other flavors, hops are a real solid candidate. I think the only exception in the case of a good GF beer might be Chinook, as it can get profoundly grapefruity, and I recall the flavor of fermented sorghum being somewhere between grapefruit and overripe apple.

All this really is to say that the traditional constraints and approaches towards GF beer so far have mostly fallen flat, when it comes to converting lovers of barley- and wheat-based beers. Much of the approach seems to be centered around making a decent pale lager or classic American pale ale. Though worthwhile pursuits, the better GF beers I've had come from Green's Gluten Free beers, a brewery based in the UK. Their interpretation of a Belgian dubbel and tripel were quite nice, full of yeasty character and other components that hid the typical sorghum taste.

I know that I've got a bag full of potential tricks in mind for dealing with this unique, challenging ingredient. As a homebrewer, I feel it is my duty to challenge the standards and strive for innovation. Now I just need to convince myself to buy the syrup.