Gluten-Free Beer Evolves

More often than not, when it comes to the beverage market, the products on the store shelves were thought up by someone who didn’t find what they were looking for and took the appropriate steps to try and fill that void.

In this case, it was an allergy to gluten that helped spawn what has become the growing category of gluten-free beer.

According to statistics, 3 million people worldwide are gluten intolerant and possibly an additional 6 percent or so of the population feel they perform better on a gluten-free diet, but have yet to be diagnosed, says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewer’s Association.

Celiac disease is a disorder that affects the small intestine and prevents the body from digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley—main ingredients in a number of food items, including beer.  

While it hasn’t always been easy to find gluten-free beers (Redbridge from Anheuser-Busch and New Grist from Lakefront Brewery were among the first available in the U.S. about six years ago) there are more options for those with the disease today; so much so that retailers have dedicated sections with products for those with a gluten allergy.

“It just used to be that a few health food stores added gluten-free beer. Now, most package stores will have a section of gluten-free beer,” says Craig Hartinger, marketing director for the Tukwila, Wash.-based Merchant du Vin, U.S. importer of Green’s Beer. Green’s first arrived in the U.S. about five years ago, and Hartinger says that every year the brand sees double-digit growth.

Last year, Green’s added a store locator function on its website to help consumers find places to purchase the beer—an addition that was much needed as the demand for the product continues to increase, Hartinger says.

As awareness of celiac disease continues to spread, there have been newcomers onto the scene who have been inspired to come up with a gluten-free beer, either because of consumer demand or because of a personal connection.

Dogfish Head released Tweason’ale last year. Sam Calagione, brewery founder, says, “An off-centered gluten-free beer was the number one thing (Dogfish fans) asked us for when they visited our pub, toured our brewery or emailed us.”

Calagione explains that this brew brings something different to the table. Sorghum, which is used in most gluten-free beers, can have a particular astringent taste. So, the brewery uses less sorghum in the recipe and replaces the rest of the fermentable sugars with puréed strawberries and dark buckwheat honey.

“It tastes more like a fruity malty Champagne than it does a traditional gluten-free beer,” he says.

The beer is available quarterly, but has a shelf life for about six months per batch, so Dogfish Head encourages Tweason’ale drinkers to stock up until the next quarterly batch comes out. The brewery decided that next year it would make about 25 percent more Tweason’ale than it did this year.

In addition to flavor enhancements made to the segment, production techniques also have evolved.

Widmer Brothers Brewing’s Omission beer, which was introduced earlier this year, is made from barley, hops, water and yeast, brewed using a proprietary process to remove the gluten. For Terry Michaelson, CEO of the Portland, Ore. brewery, which is part of the Craft Brew Alliance, coming out with Omission was rather personal. He himself has been gluten-free for 12 years, and the wife of his brew master, Joe Casey, has been diagnosed with celiac disease.

“We started experimenting with gluten-free beers using the non-traditional grain sorghum, tapioca, rice, things like that,” explains Michaelson, “and couldn’t get to a beer that we felt fit what our expectations were.”

So Casey began experimenting with the process of creating a traditional craft beer and later removing the gluten.

“That’s how Omission was born,” he says. “We are very excited about being on the cutting edge of that in the U.S.”

The process of removing the gluten from a traditionally brewed beer also is practiced in Europe where the European Union requires 20 parts per million of gluten.

Green’s for example, sold in Europe, also removes the gluten from its beer, leaving it with less than 10 parts per million, according to David Ware, owner of Green’s Beers, who bought the business last year.

The top European markets for the brand are Italy and Scandinavia, and Ware hopes to expand the brand into Australia and New Zealand though he has been met with some opposition from consumers who are looking for naturally gluten-free beers.

While there is some controversy surrounding this method in the U.S. among celiac consumers, Omission has taken necessary quality control measures within the production process and offers consumers a way to monitor that quality control on its website. An independent lab using R5 Competitive ELISA for gluten content tests each batch of Omission and consumers can check the test results for their bottle online by entering the date code stamped on the bottle.

“It’s important to us both, me personally and Joe’s wife being celiac, that we are very careful that we make certain people feel very comfortable that [Omission] is gluten free,” says Michaelson. “In that process we are helping to educate them in the evolving science.”

Ware says Green’s is also doing its part with regard to education. Within the U.K. he says, “The gluten-free beer industry is still in its infancy in terms of awareness.”

To help educate consumers about Green’s gluten-free offerings, the company is introducing new labels at the end of this year for the EU and the U.K. that more clearly explains the ingredients and prominently says gluten free, and there are plans to redesign the website and engage in social media efforts.  

Pedro Gonzalez, founder of Boulder, Colo.-based New Planet, says he’s also giving his beer a new look to better communicate its quality and clearly define its styles: Pale Ale, Blonde Ale and Raspberry Ale. Diagnosed with celiac disease in 2003, Gonzalez set out to found a brewery with the sole focus of gluten-free beers.

Today, the beer is available in 42 states and has a network of 66 distributors. Gonzalez plans on continued growth after having recently signed a long-term agreement with The Fort Collins Brewery in Fort Collins, Colo. to bring a new brew house and increased fermentation capacity to 30,000 bbl for 2013. New Planet plans to increase capacity by 50 percent in 2013 to keep up with demand for its beers.

Also, the on-premise is becoming an increasingly important market. The company plans to introduce its beer on draft in Colorado next year as part of a pilot program and also has partnered with Find Me Gluten Free, the most downloaded gluten-free restaurant and business finder app for iPhone and Android, according to the company. New Planet is the only featured beer.  

“We are developing new styles of beer for next year so we are very excited about that,” says Gonzalez. “We are a dedicated craft brewer of gluten free beers. So unlike other companies that are developing one SKU or two SKUs to throw into the category, this is all we do. The gluten-free consumer is the only consumer we have.”

It’s the consumer that will continue to drive the market as they continue to demand better quality and better tasting products—just like with any other beverage category.
 

“The main reason sales are increasing,” says Hartinger of Green’s importer Merchant du Vin, “is the consumer pull.”

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