Can celiacs drink malt liquor?

Quick Answer

Celiacs generally cannot safely drink malt liquor due to its gluten content. Malt liquor is made from malted barley, which contains gluten. The gluten content in malt liquor is likely to be high enough to cause issues for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. There are some “gluten-removed” malt liquor options that may be safer, but they still contain trace amounts of gluten and are not considered gluten-free. The only gluten-free alcohols that are definitively safe for celiacs to consume are those made from grapes, potatoes, sugar cane, etc. Malt liquor made from gluten-containing grains like barley should be avoided.

What is Malt Liquor?

Malt liquor is a type of beer made with malted barley and other grains. The term “malt liquor” is used in North America to refer to a strong, high-alcohol beer.

Traditional malt liquors contain malted barley as their main ingredient. Barley is one of the gluten-containing cereal grains, along with wheat, rye, and others. During the malting process, the barley grain begins to sprout, allowing natural enzymes to convert its starch into fermentable sugars. The barley malt contributes sugars, proteins, color, and flavor to the malt liquor.

Other grains like corn or rice are sometimes added to lighten the body and boost the alcohol content of malt liquor. But traditionally made malt liquors rely heavily on malted barley as the primary ingredient. They tend to have an alcohol content between 6-9% ABV, giving them a higher alcohol percentage than regular beer.

Some of the most popular malt liquor brands in the United States include Olde English 800, Colt 45, Steel Reserve, Mickey’s, and King Cobra. These are all examples of traditional barley malt-based liquors that contain gluten.

Why Malt Liquor Contains Gluten

Here’s a breakdown of why standard malt liquors made from barley contain gluten:

  • Barley is a gluten-containing grain.
  • Gluten proteins are found throughout the barley grain, including in the malted barley used to produce malt liquor.
  • The malting process breaks down the barley’s starch into fermentable sugars but does not remove the gluten.
  • Gluten remains present in the final malt liquor product.
  • No gluten is added – rather, the gluten occurs naturally in the barley malt.

So while the malting process transforms the barley’s starches, the gluten proteins naturally present in barley grains still persist in the finished malt liquor.

This means malt liquors made from glutenous grains contain gluten and should be avoided by those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Gluten Content in Malt Liquor

Most standard malt liquors likely contain significant levels of gluten due to being made primarily from barley malt.

However, the exact gluten content can vary between brands and styles:

  • No federal labeling standards exist for disclosing gluten content in malt liquors.
  • Gluten testing has found levels between 13-29 ppm in sampled malt liquor brands.
  • Any malt liquor containing over 20 ppm of gluten is unsafe for celiacs per FDA standards.
  • Reduced-gluten “specialty” malt liquors may have lower levels around 5 ppm.

While specific amounts can vary, regular malt liquors clearly contain gluten levels above the safe threshold for those with gluten disorders.

For comparison, most regular beers test between 10-40 ppm of gluten since they also contain barley malt. Certain specialty beers bothered to reduce their gluten content test below 20 ppm.

But standard malt liquors have not undergone any steps to lower their gluten levels during production. So there is no reason to expect their gluten content to be significantly different from regular, gluten-containing beers.

Safety Issues for Celiacs

For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming malt liquor poses several potential health risks:

  • Malt liquor likely exceeds the maximum safe gluten intake level (typically 10-20 ppm).
  • Can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain.
  • May cause fatigue, headaches, brain fog, and other gluten reaction symptoms.
  • Over time, gluten exposure can lead to intestinal damage, malnutrition, and associated disorders.
  • Increased risk of long-term complications if celiac disease remains uncontrolled.

Drinking malt liquors made from gluten-grains essentially guarantees a fairly high gluten intake.

For someone with celiac disease, this level of exposure can impact the small intestine and potentially set back one’s gut healing. That’s why it’s critical for celiacs to avoid these types of gluten-containing malt beverages.

What About Gluten-Removed Malt Liquor?

There are a handful of “gluten-removed” malt liquor products that have hit the market in recent years. Examples include Omission malt liquor and Stone Delicious IPA.

These are made from barley malt that has undergone a proprietary enzyme treatment designed to break down most of the gluten proteins. This is intended to reduce gluten levels below 20 ppm.

However, there are a few important caveats for celiacs:

  • Gluten-removed malt liquors still contain trace amounts of gluten.
  • Independent testing shows some samples may exceed 20 ppm.
  • Not considered 100% gluten-free.
  • Cross-contamination risks during production.
  • May be unsuitable for more sensitive individuals.

While gluten levels are lower compared to traditional malt liquor, they are not zero. There is also a lack of transparency and assurance around final gluten content.

For these reasons, gluten-removed malt liquors are still considered risky for the majority of celiacs and those who are highly gluten-sensitive. They do not provide enough of a safety buffer for most people with gluten issues.

Potential “Gluten-Free” Malt Liquors

There are a handful of malt liquor-style beverages made without barley or wheat that may be suitable for a gluten-free diet. However, supply is currently limited.

Some potential options include:

  • Millet malt liquor: Millet is a naturally gluten-free grain that can be malted. Very few exist so far.
  • Sorghum malt liquor: Also 100% gluten-free if made purely from sorghum. Not widely available yet.
  • Buckwheat malt liquor: Despite the name, buckwheat is gluten-free and can potentially be used.

Additionally, some craft breweries have released “gluten-free” malt liquors made from ingredients like sorghum, millet, buckwheat, rice, etc. Availability is very regionalized and limited.

So while 100% gluten-free malt liquors are possible, access to commercial brands that fit this description remains scarce. Very few liquor aisles will stock these types of specialty products currently.

Other Gluten-Free Alcoholic Drinks

Since typical malt liquors contain gluten, the safest alcoholic options for celiacs remain:

  • Wine (grape-based)
  • Gluten-free beers
  • Ciders
  • Meads
  • Spirits (vodka, gin, rum, etc.)
  • Liqueurs and mixed drinks without glutenous ingredients

As long as these are made without gluten-grains, they will not contain problematic proteins.

That being said, some caution is still warranted around potential cross-contamination depending on brand/facility practices. But in general, these types of beverages tend to be low-gluten and low-risk if produced properly.

Can You Have a Gluten Reaction to Malt Liquor?

It’s possible for those with celiac disease or NCGS to have a reaction to drinking malt liquor containing gluten. However, alcohol itself can also play a role.

Some key points:

  • Alcohol may weaken intestinal lining and amplify immune response to gluten.
  • Impairs digestion, allowing larger gluten peptides to pass through gut.
  • Can directly damage small intestinal villi.
  • Symptoms may take hours/days to appear after drinking due to alcohol effects.
  • Makes it harder to determine source of reaction – gluten, alcohol, or both?

Drinking any alcohol carries risks for those with untreated celiac disease or ongoing gut inflammation. But consuming gluten and alcohol simultaneously appears to exacerbate problems.

After drinking malt liquor, delayed reactions like headaches, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, and intestinal pain are common if gluten was the trigger. But it can be challenging to isolate whether gluten or alcohol caused issues.

Being aware of how one reacts to different types of alcohol can help determine what component is problematic. Or avoiding alcohol altogether when gluten-exposed may be wisest.

What About Cross-Contamination?

When it comes to beverages like wine, spirits, cider, etc. that are made without gluten grains, cross-contamination is still a potential concern.

Sources of cross-contamination could include:

  • Shared equipment with gluten-containing beers in the same facility.
  • Reused barrels/casks that previously held other beers.
  • Gluten ingredient carry-over on shared lines.
  • Use of common fining agents that contain gluten.

How likely and prevalent cross-contamination is depends on the diligence of the specific brand and facility. Some are extremely careful and can produce verified gluten-free alcohols. Others may be more lax.

Seeking out gluten-free certified/validated products can help identify beers, wines, ciders, etc. that have stricter controls in place to prevent cross-contamination issues.

Should You Avoid Alcohol Entirely with Celiac Disease?

Whether to avoid alcohol altogether is an individual choice that depends on your:

  • Personal tolerance and reaction symptoms.
  • Disease severity and gut health.
  • Willingness to accept potential side effects.
  • Temptation to also eat gluten-containing foods when drinking.

Some doctors and health organizations advise those with celiac disease not to drink alcohol at all, especially when first diagnosed.

Potential reasons to abstain include:

  • Maximizes gut healing initially.
  • Eliminates doubt over symptoms causes.
  • Avoids increased risks linked to having both celiac disease and alcoholism.
  • Prevents temptation to also eat glutenous bar snacks, etc.

On the other hand, many people with well-managed celiac disease don’t report issues drinking gluten-free alcohol in moderation. This is an individual choice best made under your doctor’s supervision.


For most people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, conventional malt liquors made from barley malt would be unsafe to drink due to their likely high gluten content. Gluten-removed versions may contain lower amounts of gluten proteins but are still a question mark for highly sensitive individuals.

To stay on the safe side, the best bet is to choose certified gluten-free alcohols like wine, spirits, or gluten-free beers that are produced from grains that don’t contain gluten in the first place. While trace cross-contamination is still possible, these options remain far less risky than drinking traditional malt liquor containing barley malt.

Of course, any alcohol carries its own health risks, especially for those with untreated celiac disease. Consulting your physician to determine appropriate limits and precautions based on your individual health is advised. But with the proper choices and careful moderation, many celiacs are able to occasionally drink alcohol without issues by focusing on verified gluten-free types.

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