Senior Trey VanAken researched a process to remove gluten from beer. Trey VanAken | Courtesy

More than 18 million Americans are gluten-sensitive, according to a study published in Digestion magazine. These Americans are forced to avoid foods containing the proteins found in grains such as breads and pastas.

Senior biochemistry major Trey VanAken spent his summer researching a process which would remove gluten from the beer, so that those with celiac disease and other gluten intolerances or sensitivities could enjoy the grain-based beverage.

“What we wanted to do was see if we could brew a beer that was essentially gluten-free, but that also tasted and smelled the same as a normal beer would,” VanAken said. “The other beers that are gluten-free don’t really seem to taste the same.”

As part of his research, VanAken, with the help of his research adviser Associate Professor of Chemistry Christopher Hamilton, brewed 10 different American-style pale ales modified with various amounts of grain. In half of these batches, VanAken added the enzyme prolyl endopeptidase, which is known to break down proteins similar to gliadin, the protein in gluten that causes issues for people with gluten sensitivities.

After three weeks of fermentation, each of the batches was tested for gluten content. Of the five beers from which VanAken attempted to remove the gluten, two of the beers contained less than 20 parts per million, which is the Food and Drug Administration’s threshold for a product to be considered gluten-free— making the beer effectively gluten-free.

The FDA requires the gluten-free beers currently on the market to be marked as “brewed to remove gluten,” rather than “gluten-free.”

All of the beers were then tested by various members of the faculty and student body. These taste testers took part in a triangle test, in which they were presented with three of VanAken’s beers. Assistant Professor of Chemistry Courtney Meyet, who was one of the taste testers, said they looked at the overall appearance, aroma, and taste of the beers, and were asked if they could identify if one was gluten-free, and if so, which one.

“I thought he did a great job,” said Meyet, who brews her own beer with her husband. “I would’ve drank a whole beer. A couple of them were difficult to tell apart. I would say that they were indistinguishable. In a couple of them you could see the difference…but for the most part I thought he did a really great job. I’m not even sure if I got them right.”

VanAken is the third student in recent years to work in-depth with Hamilton on brewing gluten-free beers. Hamilton, who started brewing his own beer about seven years ago, said the project has gotten more intensive as time goes on, with each student focusing on a different variable.

VanAken’s particular variable was the overall protein content in the beers.

“At the beginning, when I was brewing the beers, I added various amounts of grains, which varied the protein contents in the beer,” VanAken said. “I wanted to see how a varied amount of protein content would affect the enzyme within the beer.”

After brewing all of the beer, VanAken tested each sample for the overall gluten content, using a competitive ELISA analysis, in which antibodies added to the beer bind to any gliadin present in the beer.

The most memorable part of the process for VanAken came at the beginning of the ELISA analysis, when he was preparing the samples for the final test. In adding chemicals to the beer, before pouring them into the plates, he was able to see a color change in some of the beers, indicating very low levels of gluten.

“That was pretty cool for me, because it was like, ‘Hey, we’ve actually done this. We’ve actually achieved a gluten-free beer,’” VanAken said. “And at that point it was only a ‘possible’ by just looking at the color, but it was awesome to see the results of your work in front of you with just a couple of drops of a chemical.”

Hamilton said he plans to continue the research and said there are a number of different variables that could be tested next, such as using different yeasts in the brewing process.

Although the official description of the job called for 40 hours a week from VanAken, he typically spent closer to 50 or 55 hours a week on the project, as brewing beer requires particular care and precision.

“Obviously it’s a little labor-intensive and a little different than a traditional biochemistry project, but it is fun,” Hamilton said.

Not only did VanAken learn to brew beer — a hobby he said he would like to continue in the future — he also said the research was gratifying on a personal level.

“It’s nice knowing that there is a purpose for what you’re doing,” VanAken said. “I know that what I’ve done is no huge contribution, and is by no means going to cure world hunger or something like that, but it’s a small step, and it does raise awareness for the cause. I’ve actually had people reach out to me about this and getting articles out about the cause is more than I even expected out of this.”