Ever hear of beer made entirely from malted rice? No barleymalt, no wheat malt. These guys used only two whole grain rice malts, water, hops and yeast. Their goal is perfecting a recipe for a good tasting gluten-free beer.
They were surrounded by Mt. Shasta Brewing Company’s commercial microbrewery equipment, but these guys looked a bit like garage chemists concocting a new potion. Looks, of course, can be deceiving – or not. Truth is, Jim Eckert, Reid Hirt, Bob Bryceson, Jeff Elliott and Chris Denny all have deft fingers on the pulse of the beermaking beat. But Friday they were creating a strange and experimental brew in two five-gallon glass carboys on the floor of Vaune Dillmann’s brewing room in Weed. Ever hear of beer made entirely from malted rice? No barleymalt, no wheat malt. These guys used only two whole grain rice malts, water, hops and yeast. Their goal is perfecting a recipe for a good tasting gluten-free beer. It was Dillmann’s interest in satisfying the increasingly frequent gluten-free requests of his customers that brought the group together. Dillmann was offered and took the first sip of the cloudy caramel-brown hopped wort. He and the others agreed that the pre-fermented beer tasted good for that stage of it’s development – meaning, in part, that it did not taste like rice. It won’t taste like a finished beer until it goes through fermentation in the carboys for about two weeks, then gets transferred into pressurized kegs and chilled. Along the way, the majority of the sugars are converted to alcohol, the sediments settle out, and it becomes carbonated. Eckert, a Chico resident and home brewer since 1985, said he’s been working on rice beer for about four and a-half years. His experimentations began when his wife, after being diagnosed with a gluten-intolerance, asked him to make a beer she could drink. He said his first response to her request was, “It’s not possible.” Then he tried it. Now he’s the owner of Eckert Malting & Brewing Co. in Chico and is in the process of getting California Health Department clearance for his 100 percent gluten-free malt house. He said he plans to produce and sell malt to other breweries and is also building his own brewery. He has developed recipes for gluten-free beers ranging from light to dark, ales and lagers. Eckert and Dillmann met during a brewing convention at UC Davis last year. Dillmann, who says he gets two to three customer inquiries a week about gluten-free beer, expressed interest in Eckert’s work. When a test batch at the Weed brewery fell short of expectations, Eckert said he received a request for assistance from Dillmann. Dillmann marveled at how Eckert and Bob Bryceson, a home brewer from Shingletown, showed up in Weed at 7 a.m. Friday ready to brew. Bryceson, a member of the Shasta Society of Brewers in Redding, had been in Weed in October, 2011, when Dillmann opened the doors of his brewery for an SOB club-only day of brewing, food and drink. Reid Hirt and Jeff Elliott are full time employees at Mt. Shasta Brewing Co. Hirt has a degree in food sciences with a minor in brewing. Elliott previously worked for Coca Cola for 18 years. “Alternative beer styles are the future,” said Chris Denny, a home brewer from Montague. Dillmann referred to beer making experiments in general as “creating something out of nothing and making it quality.” Eckert and Dillmann both noted that there are chemical methods used to make beers for people with gluten-intolerances, but that’s not the direction they want to go. “An absolutely gluten-free product is my absolute niche,” said Eckert. “I hope there’s a good market for completely gluten-free beer without using outside compounds in barley beer. I hope to bring good tasting beer to the gluten intolerant of the world. There’s a wave of people looking for gluten-free diets. I’m counting on those who test positive for celiac disease. That’s the base population I want to serve. Anything beyond that is cream.” Eckert said he is “producing local beer,” using California rice and hops grown in northern California, including some hops he grows himself. He said the malting and brewing processes required to make an all rice malt beer are “a bit more complicated,” and Friday’s test run turned into “a long day for 10 gallons of beer.” They used a base rice malt from Gambrinus Malting in Canada and Eckert’s “biscuit malt” for flavor. Both were crushed prior to going into the mash. They left Weed that afternoon “with high hopes,” he said.