Have your beer—and drink it gluten-free too
Ty Powers, a 43-year-old diabetic, has always been diligent about what he eats and drinks. But three years ago, a new diagnosis upended the normal life he had struggled to maintain. Powers learned that he has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder aggravated by the gluten found in many grains, including wheat, barley and rye. Ingesting just a small amount of gluten can trigger a reaction, so Powers needed to become even more vigilant about his diet.
“It was very difficult,” says Powers, an advertising copywriter who lives outside of Nashville, Tenn. “I’ve been through diabetes growing up, and then to find out about celiac, it was just like ‘here we go again.’ ”
Social situations presented the biggest challenge. “My friends say, ‘Just try a sip of this new beer I got,’ ” says Powers, who loved to drink dark, full-bodied brews prior to his diagnosis. Because most beer contains wheat or barley, he had to decline. “There went my beer hobby,” he laments.
Or so he thought. As awareness of celiac disease has risen in the U.S. in the past few years, so has the availability of gluten-free foods—and now beer. “It’s become such a hot trend in the food market that it’s transferred over to beer,” says Lynda Calimano, who helps run the Spring Craft Beer Festival in New York’s Nassau County. The festival highlights beers from independent breweries.
That’s good news for beer aficionados like Powers. Since 2004, more than 10 craft breweries in the U.S. have started making gluten-free beer. In 2006, beer giant Anheuser-Busch introduced its own take on the variety, Redbridge, which sells in all 50 states. By 2007, gluten-free beer was taken seriously enough to have its own category at the Great American Beer Festival, the premier U.S. beer event, in Denver. In past competitions, gluten-free beer was relegated to the nondescript Specialty Beers category.
Gluten-free beers are made without the wheat or barley used in traditional brews. Most U.S. breweries make gluten-free varieties with sorghum, a grass originally from Africa. Other brews, like Japan’s Sapporo, use rice as the chief grain. Green’s, from Britain, mixes sorghum, buckwheat, millet and brown rice in its beers--all acceptable grains for those on a gluten-free diet.
About 3 million people in the U.S. suffer from celiac disease, and very few of the sufferers know they actually have it, according to the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago. Those who are diagnosed often don’t find out until later in life—after they’ve already become acquainted with beer, says Dr. Peter Green of Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center.
“For many people, beer has become their relaxation,” says Carolyn Smagalski, a beer writer and editor of BellaOnline, an Internet women’s magazine. “That’s hard to give up.”
Now they don’t have to. “We have been having trouble keeping up with the demand of the beers,” says Jordan Fetfatzes, brand manager of Bella Vista, a beer-distribution company based in Philadelphia. Bella Vista currently ships three gluten-free beers: Shakparo and Mbege, made by Sprecher Brewing Co., and Lakefront Brewery’s New Grist. New Grist, the only gluten-free beer among Lakefront’s 13 offerings, ranks as one of the Milwaukee brewery’s top three sellers, says Lakefront manager Dan Aleksandrowicz. Last year, the brewery expanded sales of New Grist to Israel and Ontario. It may soon ship to Ireland as well.
Bard’s Tale Beer Co. of Norwalk, Conn., has also expanded its gluten-free sales. The company, founded by two celiac disease sufferers, makes one beer—Bard’s, formerly known as Dragon’s Gold. When distribution began in 2004, the beer sold in 13 states. Now it sells in 30.
Celiac disease sufferers aren’t the only ones drinking the gluten-free varieties. “There’s a curiosity with beer lovers,” says Julie Hertz of the Brewers Association. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, I want to see what that tastes like.’ ”
But will they stick with it? On the Beer Advocate Web site, where drinkers can rate beer, one reviewer from Lexington, Ky., described Bard’s as “better than most and leaves a crisp, dry finish rather than the tacky residue.” However, this reviewer added, “Most typical beer drinkers won’t follow this one very far, but it was quite drinkable for the style.”
Perhaps knowing that it’s a gluten-free product affects a reviewer’s opinion. Smagalski, the beer writer, recently sponsored a blind taste test without even knowing it. “I brought home my Bard’s Tale the other day, and my son pulled one out of the fridge,” she recounts. “He said, ‘Wow, this is really good. It’s my favorite.’ And then I told him it’s gluten-free.” Her son doesn’t have celiac disease, but she said he’s a convert to the brand.
Will many other drinkers who don’t need gluten-free beer become converts? Richard Scholz, owner of Bierkraft, a specialty beer shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., doesn’t think so. “There are people who are regulars, who always come in to get their gluten-free beers,” Scholz says. “Occasionally, others will try it because it’s there. But the people who come back to it are those with celiac disease. People who can have other things move on.”