Full disclosure: as an Austrian, I was practically raised on beer. Austria ranks among the top five nations worldwide in terms of beer consumption per capita. The U.S. ranks #13 with 21.5 gallon/person. So, perhaps you can see why I can’t help but have a good brew with special occasions – including the end of each workday and weekends :o).
A month ago, I went gluten-free and feared that I had to bid farewell to good beer forever. Turns out, I was wrong. As the gluten-free market continues to boom (approaching $5 billion and predicted to grow by another $2.4 billion by 2017), taste is not a sacrifice I have to make. The main challenge is to find gluten-free beer in my neck of the woods (Virginia), but the brews I have tasted (such as Estrella) are pretty darn good.
As I ventured into gluten-free territory, there was one stat that worried me: Only one in 133 Americans avoid gluten because of medical reasons, but almost one in three people currently stay away from gluten because “it’s trendy” to do so. What if all these trend chasers jumped on a new trend tomorrow? Should I start hoarding gluten-free brews now before they disappear from the shelves?
According to industry experts, gluten-free beer is here to stay (and grow). Here are three reasons why:
1. Better Ingredients, Better “Real Beer” Taste
Figuring out how to make gluten-free beer taste like “real beer” has been a major challenge, according to Chris Furnari, editor at Brewbound.com. Gluten-free ingredients, like corn, rice and sorghum, don’t match the typical beer flavors one expects. Redbridge, Anheuser-Busch’s first gluten-free beer released in 2006, for example, was completely made from sorghum. Breweries using traditional ingredients (malted wheat or barley) and extracting the gluten after the brewing process fit the taste bill, but can’t call their beers gluten-free (yet). Luckily, more breweries experiment with new ingredients: “In Portland, Oregon, you’ll find Harvester, a gluten-free brewery using chestnuts, oats, marionberries (…) and raspberries to create beers that are both wildly flavorful and gluten-free,” so Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course. The luscious flavors of chestnuts in particular seem to be promising to gluten-free brewers around the world.
2. Reducing Label Confusion for the Consumer
“Marketers clearly see an advantage in labeling their products as gluten-free to spike sales, even if the product never had gluten in it to begin with,” says Furnari. Gluten-free beers are one step closer to solving a labeling dilemma that has been going on for years: “In August 2013, the FDA finally implemented standards for what encompasses the definition of ‘gluten-free,’ a full five years beyond the deadline established by Congress,” notes Carolyn Smagalski, Brewing Advisor for the International Gluten Free Beer Festival. “Now that the line is drawn, there will be an expansion of products available in the market place, including gluten-free beer.” The Craft Brew Alliance (BREW), maker of a gluten-free beer with malted barley called Omission, could benefit greatly from the signal the FDA ruling sends to the marketplace. Only permitted to call Omission “gluten-free” in its home state of Oregon to date, Omission could soon be labeled gluten-free nationwide if the product contains “less than 20 parts per million gluten” proteins. “Labels allowed carrying the designation ‘gluten free’ will wear it like a badge of honor,” says Smagalski.
3. Competition Breeds Innovation and Quality
In 2007, the Great American Beer Festival added a gluten-free category to its competition, judging a mere eight entries. Fast-forward five years and the category drew 20 entries in 2012. With rising competition, brew masters are bringing their A-game: “Gluten-free beers used to be like Budweiser – designed to appeal to as many people as possible. This meant a lager-like beer. Nowadays, craft brewers are creating a range of gluten-free beers, from saisons to IPAs and beyond,” said Bernstein. Smagalski thinks that “super-large brewing companies still view the gluten-free market as a limited market,” but with the growing awareness and diagnosis of Celiac Disease and gluten-intolerance, that may change. “Supermarkets are next in line” for a dedicated gluten-free beverage alcohol section, says Bernstein.
For your next trip to the supermarket, here are my top 5 gluten-free beer recommendations:
· Omission (Oregon)
· New Planet (Colorado)
· Dogfish Head Tweason’Ale (seasonal, Delaware)
· Brasseurs San Gluten (Canada)
· Harvester (Oregon)
Have you had a gluten-free brew lately? Let us know in the comments section.
Interviewees for this blog post include:
· Joshua M. Bernstein, editor of Craft Beer New York and author of the new book The Complete Beer Course, caught my attention in a Bon Appétit feature about “Ten Gluten Free Beers That Actually Taste Good.” Follow him on Twitter.
[Image credits: TheGuardian.com, WhyIsDaddyCrying.com, harvesterbrewing.com, growlermag.com, blogs.kqed.org, philly.thedrinknation.com]