When I was a kid, my dad drank Black Label beer out of a can (too often as it turned out…RIP dad). He very occasionally would offer me a sip and while I had no idea what “alcohol” was at this age, I thought it was cool that I was drinking “dad’s drink”.
I also remember my very first own beer at a party in (if my kids are reading this…STOP HERE) seventh grade. It was a 7 oz. bottle of Miller and Bill Reeves gave it to me.
Fast forward to my college years and beer became a “how much can we get for the least amount of money humanly possible” kind of thing. Taste did not matter.
But then as I got older (I was going to say “matured” but who am I kidding?), I began to develop an appreciation for real beer. The 90 Minute IPA from Dogfish, the interesting varieties from Magic Hat, the care put in by a local brewery. Early in my years, I drank beer. Later in my years, I enjoyed beer. Big difference.
Then celiac hit. BAM! No more beer. But wait…there is a gluten-free beer called Red Bridge. BLAH! No more beer.
But then something good happened. Other companies began brewing gluten-free beer that actually tasted delish and were completely safe for celiacs. Life was whole again.
End of story, right? I wish.
Other companies jumped in and decided to make “gluten-removed” beer. Just the name of it pi$$e$ me off. And confusion reigned, which seems to have become the norm in the celiac world.
Well…with the help of my three BFF’s (beer friends forever), I am here to set the record straight on gluten-free beer once and for all. Let me introduce you to the three people behind my favorite gluten-free beers: James Neumeister of Ground Breaker Brewing; Jason Yerger of Ghostfish Brewing; and David Cayer of Glutenberg.
I reached out to them a few weeks ago asking if they were game for an interview and without hesitation, they all agreed. I asked them all the same questions. Here’s how it went down:
GD: Can you explain the difference between “gluten-removed beers” like Omission and Daura and “gluten-free beers” like yours?
James: Our beers are different from “gluten-removed beers” in that what we make is actually gluten-free. We use only gluten-free ingredients in an entirely gluten-free facility, significantly reducing the risk of cross contamination.
Jason: “Gluten-removed” is kind of a misnomer, first of all, since gluten cannot be “removed” from a beer. But the main difference is that beers like Omission start with barley malt, which contains gluten, and we start with only naturally gluten-free ingredients that are either produced in dedicated facilities or certified gluten-free. This means our beers have 0 PPM gluten, guaranteed. Beers like Omission claim in their promotional materials that they are “less than 20 PPM gluten”, but this is plainly false, as neither the FDA nor the TTB recognize their testing methods as valid. In fact, it’s against the law for them to make PPM claims on their product labels…unfortunately, it’s not illegal for them to make those claims on promotional materials, as those materials are not regulated by the TTB or the FDA.
David: According to the FDA, a beer can be considered gluten-free as long as it tests under 20 parts per million (ppm). Some breweries brew beer with barley or wheat and later use an added enzyme to break down the gluten protein in the grain. It’s important to say that this particular process does not make gluten disappear, it merely tones down the amount of gluten contained in the beer itself. For some gluten intolerant people, this can be a viable option but it can be very damaging for someone suffering from celiac disease. At Glutenberg, we take care of this issue by carefully selecting ingredients that are 100% gluten free, from our grains to our yeast. Our grains are pretty much all provided by Ferme sans gluten, a certified gluten free farm located in Quebec. We try to keep our production as local as we can!
GD: When you first decided to launch a gluten-free beer, did you consider making it gluten-removed? If so, what caused you instead to (thankfully) make it truly gluten-free?
James: When I first started researching gluten-free brewing I came across the enzymes.They sounded like a terrible idea to me and I quickly wrote them off. The idea that they are genetically modified black mold created to speed up beer production really went against everything that craft brewing meant to me.
Jason: No, I never considered it, because I am celiac myself and had some bad reactions to Omission and Daura before signing on with Ghostfish Brewing Company.
David: Gluten removal has never been and will never be part of our brewing process. We believe that it’s what makes us one the most respected and delicious gluten-free beer that is currently offered on the market. It has also given us the opportunity to come up with unique and daring recipes. We have a lot fun revisiting certain styles (for example, the Glutenberg White which is inspired by witbiers traditionally brewed with wheat) and give them our own twist. We choose to see it as a springboard to our creativity rather than a barrier.
GD: What precautions do you take in the brewing process to ensure that absolutely no gluten enters the product?
James: We buy from safe vendors. Typically we source new ingredients through GFCO. If I can buy it from a GFCO certified vendor the risk is lower and the time and money we have to invest in testing goes down. For everything else we have testing procedures that we have developed with GFCO as part of our certification. Because we have a gluten-free facility there isn’t a lot of opportunity for contamination.
Jason: We make sure that everything entering our brewery is first and foremost naturally gluten-free. We also make sure that it has either a) only ever been handled on dedicated equipment, or b) has been certified gluten-free by a 3rd party certification organization. If a product doesn’t meet either of those criteria, even if it’s “probably safe”, we won’t touch it.
David: First of all, each and everyone one of our suppliers is certified gluten free. Not a single ingredient that could contain gluten is allowed in the brewery. Then, to suppress any chance of external contamination, our grains go straight from the farm to the brewery. Once the beer is brewed and canned, we test every batch before releasing it on the market. Once in a while, we send random batches to an outside lab for extent analyses. The results are then put up on the website for everyone to see. If people have any doubts on our beer, they can take a look at them and be reassured.
GD: Do you think the gluten-free movement, for lack of a better word, is here to stay and will support your business for years to come?
James: As I understand it there are as many people with celiac disease that are undiagnosed as there are people on a gluten-free diet that don’t need to be. If they all switch places we will be right where we started.
Jason: One of our founding principles is that we are making beer for everyone. That includes people without gluten issues—we want our beer to be comparable to any other beer, not just other gluten-free beers. We try to reflect this principle in everything we do, and so far it seems to be working—we haven’t done a formal study, but judging by our reviews online, it seems to be the case that a majority of people visiting our taproom and buying our beer have no gluten issues. I like to think that if tomorrow they invented a cure for every illness that responds to a gluten-free diet, we’d just keep on making beer the way we do and be none the worse for the wear.
David: Celiac disease is an unfortunate but very real condition. Just like people who are allergic to nuts, they have to cut out every dish or product that may contain gluten and we will continue to provide these people with a delicious and guaranteed safe option.
As for the brewery’s years to come, aside from being pioneers in our field, beer geeks consider Glutenberg as a genuinely great beer that happens to be gluten free. We think that it’ll help us survive and even thrive in the beer world.
GD: Anheuser Busch makes Red Bridge. Coors just came out with Peak (have not tried yet.) How do you compete with these companies that have HUGE marketing budgets?
James: By making more interesting products. (Dude note: Short and to the point :) )
Jason: I don’t see it as a competition. We’re not making light lagers, they’re not making double IPAs, stouts, witbiers, browns, or saisons (etc.). There is a time and a place for cheap light beer, and there is definitely a market for it, but it’s not our market. We’re not losing any customers to them, of that much I am sure!
Frankly, I’m glad they are doing what they do, because at least they are doing it 100% gluten-free. Do I wish they were making a product with better flavor? Absolutely! Do I think we could make a light lager that blows their products out of the water? You bet! But could we do it as cheaply, and get it distributed as widely? Not currently. And Coors…I got to give them props, because they went to the trouble to figure out how to brew a copper lager with malted and unmalted brown rice, not just sorghum syrup like AB does with Redbridge. The flavor isn’t all that different in my opinion, but it took a helluva lot of work and commitment, and that deserves some praise.
David: We try to make the brand as humane and lively as possible. It is undisputable that a big budget like the one Molson Coors has is always appreciated. However, what we lack in money, we more than make up for in humanity. People want to know that they are talking to a human being instead of a, for lack of better word, ‘’corporation’’. One of our weapon of choice is social media because it allows us to establish a direct dialogue with our customers. We can quickly answer their questions and address their concerns on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as inform the public when a new beer comes out. All in all, we work very hard to make them feel guided and educated. Plus, our biggest marketing trait is the quality of our beer. With the recent boom in the microbrew era, beer geeks grew accustomed to a certain level of quality in the beers they taste so at the end of the day, if people don’t think that your beer is worth it, not even the biggest marketing budget will be able to save you from a bad review made viral by beer forums and tasters around the world.
GD: What are your thoughts on Omission and other gluten-removed beers marketing to the celiac community as being safe?
James: I think that it is wrong to sell any product made with barley, wheat, or rye to the celiac community as safe.
Jason: It makes my blood boil! It’s just dishonest, plain and simple. They are no better than the snake oil salesmen of old, finding ways to skirt federal regulations to mislead retailers and customers alike into thinking it’s a safe product when at best it’s only safer for an unknown proportion of the gluten intolerant (and at worst it’s silently hurting everyone who drinks it). There is no rigorous scientific evidence supporting the safety of these kinds of beers, and to claim otherwise is a bold-faced lie. The federal government requires them to put on their labels “the gluten content of this product cannot be verified and this product may contain gluten”, so they are contradicting their own labels in their marketing materials!
David: We personally don’t consider it gluten free since we get a lot of pride from the fact that we do not use any barley or wheat in our brewing process but if some people think it’s worth a try, good for them. The FDA is reviewing their regulation so they might have to adjust in a not so distant future.
GD: What grains do you use to mimic the beer taste since you cannot use barley?
James: We are using tons of chestnuts and lentils that we roast in small batches at our brewery.
Jason: We use malted millet, malted buckwheat, and malted brown rice as the main “flavor” components.
David: We use a large array of grains but our top three includes millet, buckwheat and corn. Other grains such as black rice, amaranth and quinoa give us the freedom to dabble in other styles outside our regular series.
GD: What can the community do to help promote the celiac-safe beers like yours?
James: The consumer’s voice is much more powerful than most people realize. Most of the calls I get to open new accounts started with a customer mentioning us at the store where they shop or the pub where they want to hang out with their friends.
Jason: The most important thing is reminding everyone that “Crafted to remove gluten” is not the same as “gluten free”! It’s also helpful to encourage everyone with gluten intolerance to read labels and choose the truly gluten-free options, even if they can tolerate beers like Omission. We are often fighting for shelf space against brands like Omission, and they have the advantage of being cheaper and having a bigger distributor. Fight the misinformation.
David: Drink it and share their experience with your loved ones! We take part in lots of gluten-free expo to let people know that Glutenberg exists but nothing beats the good old mouth to ear.
I cannot thank James, Jason and David enough for their time, their commitment, their efforts, their honesty and of course, their gluten-FREE beer. The community appreciates you more than you know.
I will be reaching out to the folks at Daura and Omission and hopefully they will chime in with a response.
We’re at a crossroads folks. The gluten-free landscape is getting muddled by companies who do not have our best interest in mind. Please, please, please support the companies like Ground Breaker, Ghostfish and Glutenberg that do it right. Feel free to leave a comment below for them. Let’s show them some celiac love.