“Celiac disease afflicts one percent of the western population,” said Lindsay Barr of New Belgium Brewing, “that’s a fair amount of people.”
It’s a population that the food industry has refused to ignore. From gluten free breads and crackers, all the way to gluten free water; gluten reduced foods have busted out of the specialty shop niche and into mainstream grocers.
So why hasn’t the beer aisle kept up with the phenomenon?
Surprisingly, it’s incredibly easy to reduce the gluten levels in beer to well below the gluten free threshold of 20 parts per million (ppm). “It’s just an enzyme,” said Chris White, president of White Labs, a company that provides yeast and other ingredients to commercial brewers and homebrewers. "You simply add it when yeast is added, so right before fermentation.”
This enzyme, known as Brewers Clarex, breaks bonds in protein chains, essentially ridding the beer of gluten. “There is no effect on the flavor or mouthfeel of a beer,” said White, adding that “it does extend the shelf life of the beer and clarify it.”
That protein breaking process that reduces gluten also destroys the proteins that cause haze and beer and shorten shelf life. Brewers throughout the industry are already using this enzyme to eliminate chill haze, emphasizing a clarity which makes beers more attractive to many consumers.
The reason every beer using Brewers Clarex doesn’t have a label proclaiming its content gluten free is the rigorous testing and documentation processes required to comply with the The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“The FDA took a stand,” said Barr the sensory specialist at New Belgium Brewing. "In order to label something gluten free [the product] can not have any ingredient that ever contained gluten.”
This creates an obvious problem for brewers as key ingredients in beer are gluten rich like barley, wheat and rye contain gluten. Since most beers use these grains, there is a new category of beer known as “gluten reduced” or “crafted to remove gluten.”
“To call a beer gluten reduced, [brewers] need to test it and have a result of less than 20 parts per million (of gluten),” said Kara Taylor, the laboratory operations manager at White Labs.
The test White Labs provides is an industry standard for testing gluten levels known as the R5 Competitive ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immuno Sorbent Assay) method. This analysis can detect gluten levels as low as 10 ppm (parts per million).
Stone Brewing’s Delicious IPA is one of the more popular gluten-reduced beers on the market.
Steve Gonzalezm, senior manager of small batch brewing and innovation at Stone Brewing, tested their Delicious at White Labs for a long time. As the popularity of Delicious IPA grew, Stone began to test for gluten both at the brewery and at White Labs until the results were so close they had full confidence in their onsite lab.
According to Gonzalez, once gluten testing is part of the brewing process, it becomes routine. Otherwise, putting a gluten-reduced beer on the market isn’t very difficult. However, every release of Delicious IPA must wait on full testing documentation before it can be released to distributors.
“I’m really surprised no one has done a gluten-reduced IPA on a large scale like us. I don’t think they can compete with delicious – that’s just my opinion,” said Gonzalez with a laugh.
We’ve done pretty extensive work to validate the fact that there is no difference in Fat Tire or Ranger with or without the enzyme.”
New Belgium Brewing has a pair of mass-distributed gluten reduced beers.
“We’ve seen a lot of success with the Glutiny line,” said Barr. The line includes a gluten-reduced golden ale and a gluten-reduced pale ale. New Belgium tests every batch of Glutiny three times; once immediately post fermentation, once while in the brite tanks and once before packaging. “It’s a decent amount of extra work,” said Barr, “we need to document an incredibly consistent process.”
Barr, who studied beer at UC Davis wrote her master’s thesis on gluten-free beer. She has a deep interest in the quantifiable aspects of gluten-free beer and has continued to do testing at New Belgium. She said that reducing gluten in beer has no impact on head retention or foam “whatsoever.”
She is also excited about flavor research at New Belgium.
“We’ve done pretty extensive work to validate the fact that there is no difference between Fat Tire or Ranger with or without the enzyme.”
Omission Beer is the first U.S. brewery that focuses exclusively on brewing gluten-reduced beers. The gluten level detected in each batch of Omission Beer is printed directly on the label. The brewery has a philosophy of complete transparency with its gluten-free consumers.
“Each batch of Omission beer goes through a rigorous testing process,” said a company spokesperson, “After bottling, the beer is sent to an independent laboratory where the gluten content of the batch is tested. The beer is not shipped until we receive satisfactory results for each batch.”
It is unclear how quickly the gluten-reduced beer market will grow.”
Still, some brewers don’t feel that these extremely low levels of gluten are enough for the gluten-conscious consumer, especially those with Celiac disease. New Planet Beer offers two lines of beer, one that is completely gluten free and one that is crafted to reduce gluten.
“People still get sick from those gluten reduced beers,” said Pedro Gonzalez, president of New Planet. He was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2003 and wanted to give gluten-free consumers a great tasting beer made from totally gluten-free ingredients that offered zero risk of gluten irritation. “Our blonde just went from sorghum to a new kind of millet,” said Pedro Gonzalez, “This millet we have, it’s phenomenal.”
He continues to improve the recipes for his gluten-free line. New Planet also has a special grain bill for their gluten-reduced line that relies on gluten free adjuncts like maize (non-gmo corn) and oats. Gonzalez said they also use a barley that contains lower levels of gluten than traditional barley used for brewing.
As gluten consciousness continues to grow in the U.S. through the proliferation anti-inflammation diets and testing for Celiac disease, it is unclear how quickly the gluten-reduced beer market will grow.
“The added time and testing required for a beer that’s been Crafted to Remove Gluten certainly creates a barrier to entry for a lot of brewers,” said a spokesperson for Omission Brewing.
We get a lot of feedback that is just ‘Thank you, before this I couldn’t drink beer with barley in it.'”
While it may be hard for new brewers to break into the game it isn’t much easier to add more gluten-reduced options for breweries already producing them.
Stone tried out “Doublicious Double IPA” a gluten reduced double IPA, in their local California market this March. “It’s Delicious IPA but double of everything,” said Steve Gonzalez, “people really liked it.” However, he said there’s no guarantee that Stone will make Doublicious again or distribute it more widely.
The same goes for New Belgium’s gluten reduced options.
The brewery is busy developing as many as 30 new brands at the moment but none of them fall into the Glutiny line. There isn’t a plan for a new gluten-reduced beer for “at least the next year” said Barr.
There is some evidence that gluten-conscious consumers are turning to their own devices when it comes to new gluten-reduced styles. “The most excitement is in the homebrewer community,” said White of the gluten-reducing enzyme his company offers for purchase. “We get a lot of feedback that is just ‘Thank you, before this I couldn’t drink beer with barley in it.’”
People brewing their own gluten reduced beer can get it tested at labs like White Labs for around $100. “After sending in a sample, we’ll have results in three to four days,” Taylor said of the gluten testing process at White Labs.
There are also at home options. “You can buy kits of the ELISA method,” said Barr, “The test only takes a couple of hours start to finish.”
For all we know, the beers on the market meeting the below 20 ppm “gluten free” threshold are be abundant. But for now, gluten-sensitive consumers will stick to the breweries putting in the extra work to display the “gluten-reduced” label or they can make their own beer.