What’s Causing Your Beer Allergy?

Health experts weigh in

Hibiscus, mango, coriander, lemongrass — craft beer breweries are using once-unexpected ingredients to bring an infusion of flavor and innovation to a beloved beverage. However, they also appear to be sparking an increase in allergic reactions from beer lovers. Imbibers either drink, unaware their brew choice contains an allergen, or they discover an allergy to an item they don’t typically ingest. 

“We are seeing patients that come in and they’ve had reactions at bars and restaurants,” says Dr. Devang Doshi, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Royal Oak Beaumont (he also treats adults). “A lot of times, if the culprit isn’t really simple, like a piece of shrimp or a nut, more and more we’re looking into craft beers, a certain ingredient in it that could have caused the problem.” 

Even your run-of-the-mill macro brew contains plenty of ingredients that could set off an allergic reaction — especially hops, barley, and wheat. But the people with allergies to those ingredients often know they’re allergic, and therefore avoid beer.

Microbrews, on the other hand, are rife with all sorts of exotic — for beer, at least — ingredients. Short’s Brewery in Bellaire has nearly 123 specialty brews on its website. Its beer offerings include unique ingredients such as passion fruit, lemongrass, peppercorns, strawberries, currants, blue spruce tips, and many more. 

“Microbrews are more focused on flavor and developing a wider variety of taste,” Doshi says. “The larger companies mass produce; I don’t see a lot of people react to those beers. When people come in, it’s usually due to a specialty beer.”

Allergies aren’t sensitivities. The latter are hard to define, but if a particular ingredient makes you feel flushed or bloated, then you’re likely sensitive.

Allergies occur when the body builds up an antibody to a particular ingredient. For example, if you’re allergic to barley, and drink a beer that includes it, you’re likely going to have a reaction, anywhere from immediately after consumption to up to an hour after drinking. Symptoms include everything from sneezing, tingling lips, and rash, to diarrhea, vomiting, and swollen airways.  

For individuals with celiac disease, beer causes a reaction in the gut and can harm long-term health. The allergy is to a complex protein called gluten, found in barley, wheat, rye, and some types of oat. 

What makes things even trickier is that allergies can come and go over the course of one’s life. It’s not unusual, Doshi says, for people who have been eating shellfish, say, for 40 or 50 years without issue to suddenly have a serious reaction. The allergy can develop over time, with the body gradually building up antibodies.   

But that doesn’t mean craft brews need to be off limits. The same pride and dedication that leads brewers to experiment with so many ingredients make them generally willing to share exactly what goes into their recipes.

“For those with genuine food allergies, I would get in touch with the manufacturer to fully
understand the ingredients that are in there to reduce the chance of a reaction,” Doshi says. “A lot of companies welcome that.”