Although experts tell us that only about one in 100 Americans have celiac disease, a condition that results in damage to the small intestine when gluten is consumed, there are many others who have some sensitivity to gluten or are looking to avoid or minimize it in their diet for other health reasons.

A diagnosis of celiac disease means avoiding foods and beverages containing barley, rye or wheat. For the beer lovers, this has often meant giving up their beloved beverage entirely or settling for a gluten-free alternative.

Fortunately, alternatives abound. However, they are often less than ideal replacements for traditional beer. Why? Beer is made from barley, hops, water and yeast. Some beers also contain other fermentable grains, such as corn, oats, rice, rye or wheat, although these typically comprise far less than 50 percent of the fermentable grains in beer. Barley, and to a lesser degree wheat, is what makes beer beer.

So, if an essential ingredient is missing, do you still have beer? Well, maybe.

Several popular brands of gluten-free “beers” are available locally, such as Green’s, New Planet and Redbridge. These brands replace barley with sorghum -- a grain that is safe for celiac sufferers.

The upside to these beers is that they’re safe to drink and don’t utilize gluten-containing ingredients. The potential downside: They just don’t taste quite like “real” beer.

Like replacing sour cream with yogurt on your baked potato, it may be the healthy choice, but it’s just not quite the same. No matter how well a sorghum beer is made, you will know the difference.

In 2012, the folks at Omission Beer (part of the Craft Brew Alliance) introduced something new -- a beer brand made from barley, hops, yeast and water (i.e., real beer) that has undergone a proprietary process using a special enzyme to remove gluten. This gluten-removed beer is, for many, the best of both worlds. The beer is tested using the R5 Competitive ELISA (a mechanism to test for gluten proteins) and shown to be well under the threshold the FDA has established for gluten content while maintaining all of the flavor of a genuine craft beer. Omission Lager and Omission Pale Ale are available locally at your favorite beer retailer. The company describes the experience of trying an Omission beer for the first time an “O” moment, because many people are trying real beer (rather than sorghum-based beer) for the first time or they enjoy an Omission beer without realizing it is gluten-removed beer in the first place.

Another viable alternative to traditional beer is hard cider, of course. Hard ciders have enjoyed a massive spike in popularity in the last couple of years; and cider, made from apples, is naturally gluten-free. In addition to national brands like Angry Orchard, Johnny Appleseed and Woodchuck, several local and regional hard ciders have gained followings. Try Apple Knocker Hard Ciders from Owl Creek in Cobden, Crown Valley Strawberry Cider out of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, or Von Jakob Streakin’ Johnny in Alto Pass.

Whether your aversion to gluten is medically necessary or you’re just seeking a health-conscious alternative to gluten-heavy beers, your options are more plentiful -- and tastier -- than ever in Southern Illinois.

SHAWN CONNELLY writes for Beer Connoisseur magazine. He is a craft and specialty beer retail consultant and an award-winning home brewer. Read his blog at beerphilosopher.com.

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