Every spring, the Jewish people celebrate the Holiday of Passover. Traditions include eating unleavened bread (Matzah), and abstaining from leavened grain (Chometz) during the entire holiday of Passover. Foods that comply with this requirement are called "Kosher for Passover," but as we shall see, these foods are not just for Passover any more.
"Chometz", is defined as any of the five major grains (wheat, rye, oats, barley, and spelt) that have sprouted or become subject to fermentation. The only Kosher for Passover food that contains flour is Matzah, which is baked very quickly and under special supervision.
Although the Holiday of Passover lasts only eight days, an entire industry has developed to provide the special foods required on this holiday: baked goods are produced based on potato starch instead of flour; chocolates are produced without the use of lecithin (a soy derivative), and thus use only pure cocoa butter; and candies are produced with real sugar, or glucose made from potato or tapioca starch, as opposed to wheat or cornstarch.
Even American icons make allowance for Passover. Regular soft drinks are typically sweetened with corn syrup (which is not permitted on Passover), so soft drink manufacturers produce Kosher for Passover soda that uses real sugar. Aficionados of Coca-Cola® therefore eagerly await the annual Kosher for Passover Coke® productions, knowing that it is "Real Thing"™ — all sugar and no corn syrup!
Until recently, however, Jewish beer lovers had to go on the wagon during Passover. Beer is traditionally made by fermenting malted barley, which is clearly off-limits during Passover. Last year, however, Ramapo Valley Brewery, located in Suffern, NY, developed a grain-free beer that I was able to certify as Kosher for Passover. Indeed, beer need not be produced from grain at all, and it is on this point that the (t)ale turns.
Regardless of whether we call an alcoholic product wine, beer, cider, mead, or whisky, they are all produced by essentially the same process. When certain species of naturally occurring yeast grow in sugar, they enzymatically convert part of the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. These yeast are of the family saccharomyces (from the Latin sacchar [sugar] and -myces [fungus, from the Greek mykes]), and can convert glucose (sugar) from any source into alcohol.
Historically, people fermented the types of sugar that were readily available to them. In countries where grapes grew in abundance, fermented grape juice — wine — was the popular libation. In colder climates, apples tended to grow better than grapes, and cider was the common fermented drink. In countries where beekeeping was popular, honey was commandeered for the production of mead. As far as the yeast is concerned, however, sugar is sugar, and they go about their business converting it into alcohol without regard to its source.
In their search for sugar to ferment into alcohol, people quickly learned that grain could also be converted into sugar. Grain is mostly starch, and starch is merely a long chain of glucose molecules. While early brewmeisters may not have understood the chemistry behind it, they found that, if they soaked grain in water and allowed it to germinate, they could extract sweet syrup that would indeed ferment. The term "brewing" beer, therefore, owes its origin to the production of sugar, not alcohol! In any event, an entirely new source of fermentable sugars was now available for the production of alcoholic beverages, which eventually became known as beer. Indeed, the name of the strain of Saccharomyces used in the fermentation of many types of alcoholic beverages is "cerevisiae" — which means "beer" in Latin.
Regardless of its base material, however, alcoholic beverages made from fermented sugar tend ed to be sweet, not the bitter, astringent beer that is preferred in many cultures. To address this challenge, beer makers have historically added a variety of flavorings to their creations, such as wild rosemary, coriander, ginger, anise seed, juniper berries, and wood bark. The most popular additive, however, is the flower from a vine called hops, which serves to give both a bitter bite to the beer as well as to help preserve it. It also has mild sedative properties, and thus complements the effects of the alcohol.
The use of hops in beer dates back to the time of the Romans, who described it as the wild vine that grew "like a wolf among sheep". They therefore gave it the name Lupus salictarius ("the good wolf"), from which hops took its modern botanical name Humulus lupulus. Today, the hops flower is added directly into the beer vats, or an extract of the rosin of the hops (rich in alpha acids) is used as a flavoring.
The making of Kosher for Passover beer poses an interesting challenge, in that the type of beer with which we are most familiar is produced from malted barley and other types of grain — ingredients that are most definitely prohibited during Passover. Hops, on the other hand, pose no Passover concern, in that they are merely a flower (not flour!). As we have seen, however, it is the sugar that serves as the base of beer, not the grain. In fact, other sources of sugar had historically been used to produce beer. The Talmud notes that in ancient Babylonia, beer was made from dates, figs, honey, and berries — all of which are eminently suitable for use on Passover. By utilizing these ancient concepts, I have worked with John Calen, the master brewer of Ramapo Valley Brewery, to formulate a delicious non-grain beer, using honey, molasses, hops, and Passover yeast. Although Passover beer does not have the flavor notes that would be contributed by malted barley, it is fully hopped and exhibits a classic beer flavor that many have found quite enjoyable.
Passover beer has also proven a boon to another beer-thirsty constituency, long deprived of the ability to quaff a good lager. The protein complex found in wheat, rye, and barley is known as gluten, which becomes part of grain-based beer. Many people cannot tolerate gluten in their diet because they suffer from a condition known as celiac disease or other forms of gluten intolerance, and have therefore long been deprived of the ability to drink conventional beer. Passover beer, however, contains no grain, and is therefore gluten-free. It is perfectly suited for anyone who must avoid gluten, allowing all to enjoy a good brew regardless of their gluten sensitivity.
The confluence of the needs to these two constituencies — Passover observant and gluten free — has served to open a new market for beer, and members of both communities now have the opportunity to partake of a product that had previously been off-limits.