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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.”