If you fall into the estimated 6 – 7% of the US population who suffer from gluten intolerance, you may have already tried a gluten-free beer or two (or three, or four – depending on whether it’s Saturday or not). But is mead gluten-free?
You would have thought so, with just honey, water, and yeast ingredients, but that would make for a very short conversation! So, where does that dreaded gluten sometimes come from in mead?
Hopefully, this article will help you enjoy more mead while sticking to your gluten-free diet.
What is Mead Traditionally Made From?
It’s not a wine (although sometimes it’s called honey wine), not a beer, and definitely not a cider. Mead is in its own category yet can often taste like a good craft beer, fine wine, or a hard cider.
Traditionally, mead was made with just raw honey, water, and wild yeast. Some historians even suggest the wild yeast would sometimes be blown onto the water trapped in upturned beehives. The natural fermentation process, and resulting mead, would occur without the need for human intervention.
A naturally occurring alcoholic beverage, what could be better? Traditional meads of the past were almost certainly safe for a gluten-free diet. But in those days, people didn’t seem to worry too much about gluten!
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in the majority of wheat products. It acts as the glue holding grains like wheat, barley, or rye together and maintaining their shape. As it is a naturally occurring protein, it cannot be stripped from the grain – basically if a grain contains gluten, there is no way to make the resulting beverage or food gluten-free.
The FDA states that for a food or drink to be labelled “gluten-free,” it must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Although labeling an alcoholic drink as gluten-free is voluntary, it is the brewer’s responsibility to ensure the claim to be a gluten-free mead is not misleading in any way.
As well as being the lowest level of gluten that can be accurately measured, 20 ppm is also considered a safe level of gluten for even the most die-hard celiacs. If you suffer a gluten intolerance, you will undoubtedly know only too well what effect even a small trace of gluten can cause.
Gluten Containing Ingredients in Mead
So how does a drink using honey as its primary ingredient become an enemy to those following a gluten-free diet?
Traditionally and by federal law, mead is classified as an agricultural wine, with no grains, cereals, or molasses permitted in its production. Most boutique meaderies will enjoy winery status, which means no grains are allowed to be used by law and, therefore, in the United States, any mead commercially produced should be gluten-free.
Unfortunately for those who have celiac disease or suffer from gluten intolerance, modern meads can often be made using extra ingredients which contain gluten or use processes where there is a risk of gluten cross-contamination. These processes and extra ingredients can take several forms:
Barley or Malted Barley
Meads can often have some form of barley added and are commonly known as barley mead or barm. There’s even a subcategory of mead known as braggot, where 1/3 of the brew is barley but can sometimes be up to 50%.
As barley is one of the three major gluten grains (wheat, barley, and rye), adding barley malt to a mead makes it a no-go drink for those with a gluten intolerance.
The label of any commercially produced mead will normally indicate if it contains barley gluten.
The yeast used in the mead fermentation process is a trickier one to spot, as there is no legal packaging requirement to specify the exact strain of yeast used. Even if no barley was used in the production of the mead, there may still be small traces of barley if a brewer’s yeast was used.
A gluten-free yeast, like wine yeast used in the traditional mead process, doesn’t contain any gluten. It’s a single-cell organism that grows on the sugar from honey. But sometimes, a mead producer may use a brewer’s yeast, a by-product of the beer brewing industry.
The barley gluten found in this yeast slurry may be low enough not to pose a risk to anybody looking for a gluten-free beverage but could still be risky to those who are hypersensitive to gluten.
Aging in Used Barrels or Casks
Some boutique meaderies will use casks or beer barrels in the mead’s aging process. Remember, mead is one of those drinks which tastes better the longer it ages or matures. We are not talking about a cold, quick-brewed lager that is best drunk a few months after production. Often we are talking years, just like a fine wine.
Whiskey barrels, particularly those used to store whiskey bourbon, may add a desired smokiness to the aged mead. But it can also cross-contaminate the mead with any gluten found in the previous beer or whiskey batch. Although the resulting cross-contamination is likely to be low, it’s advisable to avoid barrel-aged meads if you are trying to stick to gluten-free foods and beverages.
A Final Word on Mead and Gluten
I hope we have not scared you out of trying mead, especially if you already love an occasional glass of “the nectar of the gods” but are worried about gluten. There are now many producers of mead that can guarantee their mead to be gluten-free, including some fantastic tasting meads from the Redstone Meadery or Chaucer’s Meadery.
If you are unsure if the mead you are purchasing fits your gluten-free requirements, check the labelling or just ask the meadery three simple questions:
- Is barley used in the production of the mead?
- Do they use a brewer’s yeast for the mead fermentation?
- Are beer casks or whiskey and bourbon barrels used in the aging process?
If the meadery can answer no to all three questions, it should be safe, even for those with gluten intolerance. If you are still unsure, brew your own at home, leaving out any gluten. There’s also a wide selection of gluten-free hard cider, beers, or wines available online and in stores.