The ancient grain makes a healthy burrito bowl base, but does it make a healthy booze?
From breakfast bowls to salads to a slew of packaged snacks, our love for quinoa can't stop, won't stop. The so-called superfood ancient grain known for being a good source of plant-based protein has become such a staple in Americans' diets that we're shocked if we meet someone who still mispronounces it.
And now there's more proof that quinoa's star status isn't fading: You can buy quinoa-based beer, whiskey, and vodka.
While some companies' quinoa-based products predate 2010, this niche market is largely influenced by the grain's rise to mainstream celeb status in recent years.
"We saw a lot of ancient grains being discovered and new grains being tried for other foods that were coming out of the health food enthusiasts, the sustainability movement, or locavores," says Darek Bell, owner/distiller of Corsair Distillery, which produces a quinoa whiskey. "We like to try new things, so we experimented with a lot of grains that, to our knowledge, had never been distilled. We kept coming back to the quinoa, as it was very unique." The flavor and mouthfeel are different from any other grains they've used, Bell explains. (You'll have to try it yourself to taste the difference, he says!)
Another reason for the trend is the gluten-free craze.
"Many gluten-free beers today miss on taste, and we want to offer consumers a viable option," says Jack Bays, president of Bay Pac Beverages, the producer of Aqotango ales, which are brewed with quinoa. "We see Aqotango ales as a new craft beer segment and a unique opportunity for gluten-sensitive consumers to enjoy a real ale without compromising on taste."
The alcohols are made like others, with a few extra steps that need to take place. At Corsair, they wash the quinoa to remove the bitter saponins covering the seeds, then cook it. "We then add malted barley, which breaks down starches to sugar, and add yeast that converts sugar to alcohol," Bell explains. "We distill it in our stills to make the high-proof alcohol, then put it in a barrel to age."
Making Aqotango ales is a bit trickier than making traditional beer because quinoa seeds are so small and require special handling to extract the starches necessary for fermentation. "We also add some steps to the traditional mash process in order to capture the essence of this key component," Bays explains.
The end results? Earthy, nutty whiskey that's great neat or in cocktails; super smooth, subtly sweet vodka with a kick of spice at the end; or pale ale, amber ale, and IPA with a nutty flavor.
Although quinoa as a food is super healthy, quinoa-based alcohol isn't any "better" for you than other options. "Any alcohol, when enjoyed in moderation, has some health benefits, but there is nothing specifically beneficial to using quinoa," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., author of The Superfood Swap and a Shape advisory member. "Quinoa is just the grain that is eaten by the yeast for fermentation to make alcohol. It is mostly added for a difference in color and flavor."
In other words: All of health reasons that make quinoa so amazing as a grain to eat—fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids—no longer apply when it's used to make liquor, so it's exclusively about whether you prefer the taste.
And yes, quinoa is gluten-free, but keep in mind that some alcohol products may also include gluten-containing grains such as barley, Jackson Blatner adds. So don't assume something with "quinoa" on the label is automatically gluten-free.
Bottom line: Go ahead and enjoy quinoa-based spirits and beer, but don't fool yourself into thinking that Old Fashioned is somehow a superdrink—no matter how tasty it is!