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The Hopped-Up Quest For A Gluten-Free Beer That Doesn’t Suck

From brew-crazed Portland to craft-beer darlings Dogfish Head, the race is on to create a beverage that quenches a growing, powerful thirst.

The Hopped-Up Quest For A Gluten-Free Beer That Doesn’t Suck
[Beer: TAGSTOCK1 via Shutterstock]

James Neumeister’s brewpub in Portland, Oregon, is like a lot of other watering holes in that beer-crazed city. There are burgers, Cuban sandwiches, and pizza on the menu, and IPAs and lagers on tap. The beers are locally made by his company. But many of the patrons came a long way to drink there for a different reason: His business, Ground Breaker Brewing, is one of the U.S.’s only gluten-free brewpubs. The beers are made with sorghum, chestnuts, rice, and other ingredients. Neumeister’s desire to make a pint for people with celiac disease–like his wife–is putting him at the vanguard of a trend.

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Ground Breaker is one of several brewers offering gluten-free beers to American drinkers. These breweries are aiming to serve a large market: According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, approximately 1% of Americans have celiac disease (which causes health complications from ingesting gluten), and a gluten-free diet has become a fad of sorts. Despite minimal increases in the number of Americans with celiac disease, market research firm Mintel estimates that sales of gluten-free products reached $8.8 billion in 2014–a 63% increase in annual sales from 2012–2014. That’s a lot of money to be spent on gluten-free food and drinks, especially on beer that’s perceived to be healthier than the competition. The incredible and enduring popularity of the paleo diet, which eschews many kinds of grains, has boosted that trend.

Gluten-free consumers have already found wine, tequila, or hard apple cider beverages they like (all are naturally gluten-free), but gluten-free beers have been popping up on American grocery shelves and bar lists over the past few years. They are made by either a chemical process that strips gluten from barley malt, or with alternate gluten-free grains such as buckwheat, sorghum, and rice.

These gluten-free beers are also accompanied by beers that ride the low-carb wave while still containing small amounts of gluten, appealing to gluten-avoiding customers who don’t have celiac disease. In California, Santa Cruz’s Uncommon Brewers, for instance, makes a buckwheat-based bacon brown ale, and Los Angeles’s Angel City Brewery sells a sake-flavored beer made with rice.

But brewers of gluten-free beers have to cope with a unique labeling problem. Until 2007, beer sold in the United States couldn’t be marketed as gluten-free–and to this day, beer made from de-glutenized barley malt still can’t. Kind of.

Gluten, Government, And Labels

One of the largest makers of gluten-free drinks worldwide is the U.K.’s Greens Beers, which has been selling gluten-free beer since 2004. But when the brand tried to crack the American market, they faced a problem: U.S. government regulations prohibited them from actually labeling their beer as a gluten-free product.

Craig Hartinger of Seattle-based importer Merchant du Vin, which handles Greens’ U.S. operations, told Fast Company that in 2008, American distributors were able to label beers made without barley malt as “gluten free” for the first time (Beers made from de-glutenized malt still can’t be labeled as “gluten free” for interstate U.S. purchases). Before that, retailers and bars had to point customers towards gluten-free beers on menus or in-store signs. This hampered discovery of gluten-free beers by many customers and turned off brewers from creating gluten-free beers. After all, what’s the use of making a specialty beer for customers with a health condition if you can’t actually market to those customers?

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As of 2014, beers made from pseudo-cereals can be labeled as gluten-free, but beer made from de-glutenized barley malt can’t. This means that, unlike in other countries, American gluten-free beers are primarily made from sorghum and millet.

Similar. But Different

This means that customers of gluten-free beers in the United States get to sample beverages that taste similar to traditional lagers and ales. Sorghum, the primary ingredient in many of these beers, is a grass with a sweet taste that requires brewers to use creative tricks in order to avoid a metallic aftertaste. The best gluten-free beers, such as Dogfish Head’s Tweasonale, have a light and fruity taste not too different from a wheat beer with added fruit syrup. Green’s sorghum-based Discovery is a bit more tart, but has a refreshing flavor that would taste great on a hot day. They don’t taste exactly like traditional beers, but they do taste good.

When Dogfish Head, a prominent Delaware-based craft brewer, decided to enter the gluten-free beer market in 2011 in response to customer demand, they struggled with the best formula to use. Brewmaster Sam Calagione said that after testing, his team opted for a mix of sorghum, buckwheat honey (which he says adds a “dark and malty” flavor), and pureed strawberries. He compares the finished product to a malty smoothie in terms of taste, and noted that many of the ale’s purchasers don’t follow a gluten-free diet and simply try it out when they see it at a store or bar.

Other gluten-free brewers go for stripping gluten from barley, government labeling requirements be damned. The Craft Brew Alliance offers an Omission Beer line of lagers, pale ales, and IPAs made from gluten-stripped ingredients. Joe Casey, brewmaster at Widmer Brothers, said his brewery originally experimented with sorghum- and honey-based brews but scrapped the results as “too different” from traditional beers. In the case of Widmer, both Casey’s wife and company CEO Terry Michaelson have both been diagnosed with celiac. The company eventually opted to use an enzyme called Brewer’s Clarex, which breaks apart gluten protein chains. Out of all the gluten-free beers out there, they taste the closest to traditional lagers and ales; they also lack the novelty factor that might attract non-celiac consumers to purchase the beers.

A Growing Thirst

Breweries offering gluten-free beers have a lot of customer demand to fill. The Craft Brews Alliance company, of which Widmer is a part, says Omission accounts for approximately 5.3% of their total sales. James Neumeister of Ground Breaker says his brewery’s brewpub has become a draw attracting celiac tourists to a city where they can safely sample gluten-free beer flights and pizza.

But producers of gluten-free beers also have to juggle government requirements, safety demands, and customer education. Omission brand manager Casey Armstrong noted that the TTB’s requirements mean his company effectively has to make two different labels: One a gluten-free label for international and in-Oregon consumption, and a label with a disclaimer saying the beer was crafted to remove gluten for U.S. sales. Greens markets similar gluten-removed barley-based beer in European markets, but does not import it into the United States in large quantities due to the TTB restriction.

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Brewers also have to go the extra mile to assure customers of their products’ gluten-free status. Omission only sells their product in bottles in order to avoid contamination through lines in bars, and posts gluten safety information about every batch of beer they produce. Dogfish Head hires third-party groups to analyze their beer as well, and deals with “complicated” production issues caused by the fact that their entire brewery has to be cleaned before the beer is made in order to receive gluten-free certification. Ground Breaker, meanwhile, has the luxury of operating a 100% gluten-free full-time facility, but also has to cope with the challenges of a supply chain that’s far more complicated than that of most small breweries.

Then there’s the last challenge: Customer education. Celiac consumers form a large percentage of the market, and the trendiness of gluten-free items in the marketplace mean many customers without specific health needs are attracted to them. But while gluten-free beers can easily be found at health food stores with liquor licenses and high-end chains such as Whole Foods, they have yet to easily be found in most supermarkets or mainstream bars. Nonetheless, Dogfish Head is excited: They’re upping Tweasonale production by 20% this year.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Omission as a Widmer Brothers brand. It belongs to the Craft Brew Alliance, of which Widmer is a part.