Powder Keg: Brewing industry responds to call for gluten-free beer
May 21, 2014
A few years back, I asked Terry Michaelson, former CEO of Craft Brew Alliance Inc., the parent company for Widmer Bros. and Redhook, what it was like for him to ingest gluten, a protein found in many grains.
"Predominantly, it impacts the stomach, that's the first reaction … very bad indigestion," he said. "People have other reactions — rashes, headaches, feeling bad like they have the flu — that can be associated with it. The initial reaction is a negative, but it also has a long-term impact on your intestines."
Doesn't quite sound like a walk in the park. Now imagine that any or all of those not-so-fun symptoms hit you every time you have a beer. That's the harsh reality for Michaelson and the many other card-carrying members of Team Gluten-Free who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that impacts the intestines.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of celiac disease is unknown, but one article in the journal Gastroenterology estimated that between 1 in 105 and 1 in 1,750 individuals in the U.S. might be affected. That's a lot of people who are forbidden from enjoying a foamy, fresh pint, simply because they were unlucky enough to be born with faulty genes.
Brewers around the country have taken notice of the increasing number of people diagnosed with celiac disease each year, and they have come up with some pretty inventive ways to circumvent the gluten-carrying culprit in beer: barley. One of the pioneers in producing celiac-friendly, 100 percent gluten-free beer is New Planet Beer in Boulder. New Planet was the first brew house in Colorado to pursue the label and one of the first in the country, said Peter Archer, brand manager for the brewery.
"We concentrate wholly on gluten-free ales," he said. "To be listed (as gluten-free), by law, you have to use nongluten-containing grains."
Rather than using malted barley or wheat as a base for their brews, New Planet starts with sorghum or brown rice and, from there, adds organic raspberries, coffee, cocoa, molasses and other ingredients that are also 100 percent gluten free. The result is a variety of pretty tasty brews — though they might not have the flavor you'd typically expect from barley-based beers.
"Because we use different ingredients, our beers do have a slight sorghum note," Archer said. "But we spend a lot of time trying to hide the sorghum flavor profile. We spend a lot of time to brew our beers so that they have full flavors, rich bodies."
Archer compared the relationship between barley beers and sorghum beers to that of red and white wines — they're always going to taste different, but they're both still wine, distinctive in their respective categories.
Rather than throwing out the barley altogether and replacing it with other grains that don't contain the gluten protein, Widmer Bros. chose a different route. Brewmaster Joe Casey and his team employ a process that removes the gluten protein from the barley to create a series of beers under the Omission label.
"We have what we call a program because it's not one particular thing," Casey said. "It starts with regular barley that contains gluten. We use barley with less protein, and any time there's a place where there's a typical reduction in protein, we make sure we're doing what we can to reduce that protein."
The process involves an enzyme called Brewers Clarex, which was originally developed as a clarifying agent but is used in the brewing process of Omission to break down the proteins in the beer. Each finished batch of Omission is then tested for gluten levels. Each beer must wind up with 20 parts per million or less of the protein.
"It was important to us to test," Michaelson said. "There are two outside groups that we have test it. And we post that on the website, so people can see the batch number and go online and see what the test level is for that beer."
The website, http://www.omission test.com, has the drinker select the pale ale, the lager or the IPA, which was added to the lineup last year, and enter the date found in the corner of the bottle's label. The site pulls up the corresponding batch and the test report for that specific beer, allowing those who are gluten intolerant to put their minds and stomachs at ease and enjoy the brew in front of them.
Why it matters
Archer said a lot of people enjoy beers such as Omission, which he calls "crafted beers," because they are made with barley and therefore taste more like regular beer, but because they still contain some level of gluten, they cannot be labeled gluten-free and they may not be entirely safe for those with celiac, depending on the severity of the disease.
"If you look at an Omission label, it doesn't say gluten free anywhere on the label, anywhere on the package," he said. "It does say, 'may contain fragments of gluten.' That's the big difference between a crafted beer (and New Planet). It is a barley beer, so it does have a traditional barley beer flavor.
"For our audience, which is primarily celiac and highly gluten intolerant, they aren't able to experience that type of beer, so we fill that void."
For New Planet, the distinction is important, Archer said, because the owner of that brewery, Pedro Gonzalez, was diagnosed with celiac seven years ago.
"He cannot take gluten in any form," Archer said. "He can't drink even 3 parts per million. He created a brewery that he could drink his own beer. If we made crafted beers, he wouldn't be able to drink them. For him to be participating every day, we have to be 100 percent gluten free."
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