A gluten-free kernel of hope

U of W profs develop a beer made from corn

Dr. Jamie Galka is an instructor in chemistry who brews beer at home, and he's part of a project exploring the possibility of a corn-based, gluten-free beer.

Photo by Keeley Braustein-Black

Gluten-free beer currently has a long way to go, according to University of Winnipeg (U of W) instructor in chemistry Dr. Jamie Galka.

But he and associate professor of biology Dr. Paul Holloway are on the case. The pair have teamed up to research the viability of a corn-based, 100 per cent gluten-free malted beverage. It’s most like beer, so that’s what they’re calling it, but it’s also in a class of its own.

“Gluten-free beers are terrible,” Galka says with a laugh. At home, Galka has been brewing up homemade beer for many years, so when Holloway approached him with the research project, he was on board right away. 

“Barley provides the enzymes for starch, and for some reason, no one’s looked into that with corn,” Holloway says. “Are there similar enzymes in corn? If there are, you can make the corn do the work and produce a corn beer, so what we found is that yes, you can do it.”

He explains that a seed is full of starch but, in its raw form, that starch is not food for yeast. Malting barley converts that starch into simple, digestible sugars, and they’ve found that corn malts in a similar way.

It’s great news for folks with gluten allergies and sensitivities, but Galka hopes their corny beer will be something customers will choose for its flavour.

“It’s like a light pilsner, lager style, easy drinking, kind of a lawn mower beer,” he says. “We don’t want to sell it as gluten-free. We want to sell it on its taste.”

With so many local breweries opening up in Winnipeg, their research is relevant on a local scale, especially since corn production is huge in Manitoba. 

“One in every 100 jobs in Canada has something to do with beer,” Galka says. “It’s about a $6-billion profit annually from sales and making of beer.” 

The good news for breweries here is that making beer with corn is not a more complicated or expensive process than making it with barley.

“We’ve tried to duplicate the beer process, not getting away from that,” Holloway says. “They don’t need any new equipment.”

The equipment used, however, would have to be cleaned between batches to make the product totally gluten-free. 

The project’s first phase was funded by the Manitoba Corn Growers Association for a total of $12,000. The funds allowed the pair to hire a summer student and produce their first couple of batches. Several other U of W students have gotten involved as well, eager to work on something beer-related, but also gaining lab experience while working on an applied goal. 

“It’s real science behind it, basic science,” Galka says. “Humans have been doing this for 6,000+ years.”

It will be another few years before corny beer hits the shelves, the pair says. There is more work and research to be done in refining the taste, look and balance of the beverage.

Published in Volume 71, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 16, 2017)

Related Reads