Ben's Beer Blog

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Let’s talk about gluten free beer

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Glutenberg

Gluten free beer in Canada has historically been a problematic idea for one very important reason: It’s literally impossible.

To be “gluten free,” according to Health Canada and the Canadian Celiac Association, a product must have no deliberately added ingredients that contain any gluten proteins from barley, oats, rye, triticale, or wheat, including kamut and spelt and any gluten levels in the product from accidental gluten contamination must be less than 20 parts per million (ppm).

To be “beer,”  according to Canada’s Food and Drug Laws, something has to be “the product of the alcoholic fermentation by yeast of an infusion of barley or wheat malt and hops or hop extract in potable water and shall be brewed in such a manner as to possess the aroma, taste and character commonly attributed to beer.”

So if a product is truly gluten free, it isn’t actually beer and, if a product is truly beer, it can’t be gluten free. So that’s the final word on gluten free beer.

See you later!

Oh, you’re still here?

OK then. Let’s talk a little more about gluten-free beer.

“Ben,” you’re probably saying, “I know I’ve seen ‘gluten free beer’ on store shelves before, so what the heck is that stuff?”

Well, that’s a good question, Kenny and I’m glad to see your rash cleared up.

Gluten free beer, more often than not, is either a “beer-like” product made from an alternative malt product, or it is a traditionally-made beer that has been “de-glutenized.”

So what the hell does that mean?

nbgfWell beer-like gluten free products are often made from Sorghum, a species of grass cultivated for its grain. Specifically, it’s made from Sorghum Bicolor, a tough, drought- and heat-tolerant crop whose resilience makes it wide-spread as a food crop among the poor in arid regions. The U.S. Grains Council says it is the “fifth-most important cereal crop grown in the world.” Thanks wikipedia!

If reading this short synopsis of Sorghum didn’t give you the distinct impression that beer made with this crop would be delicious, your instincts are sound. Sorghum-based beer is often pretty weird, kind of sour, and unpleasant. About the nicest thing I have to say about the best examples we can get in the LCBO here in Ontario (Bards from Buffalo and New Grist from Milwaukee) is that they almost taste like a standard, mass-produced lager.

That’s not a ringing endorsement.

Ontario’s Nickel Brook Brewery also does a gluten free beer with a blend of sorghum, demerara sugar, and pear juice and it is, by all accounts, far sweeter a beverage than what anyone seeking “beer” would likely be interested in. The tasting notes for this product actually note its “sweet aromas of powdered sugar bubblegum.” Uh, no thanks.

Next we have de-glutenized beers . These beers are made with barley but use an enzyme-based process to break down their gluten, and while the producers of these beers claim they are safe for consumption for the gluten-intolerant, the process doesn’t actually remove all the gluten.

Here in Ontario, we can get Mongozo Premium Pilsener at The Beer Store. It’s a Belgian beer made with 60% barley malt that has been de-glutenized.Mongozo Gluten Free Pilsener I spoke with Guy McClelland, president of McClelland Premium Imports and importer of Mongozo about this beer back in 2014 when the beer was first made available here.

“Mongozo is certified gluten free by the European Union. Lab tests we receive show it coming in consistently at well under 10 parts per million [i.e. under the Canadian Celiac Association recommendation of less than 20ppm ],” McClelland told me. “We have been selling Mongozo Premium Pilsener in Canada for several years without one complaint about gluten.”

Indeed, for my money, the decidedly pilsener-esque Mongozo was for quite some time (and possibly still is) the best-tasting gluten free beer option you can get in Ontario–but came with the disclaimer that it wasn’t 100% gluten free (I’ve read of folks who are sensitive to 10ppm gluten so this might be a deal breaker for some) and the obvious downside that you have to enter a Beer Store to buy this beer; which I try not to do on principle (FYI, Mongozo is also certified organic and fairtrade if that sort of shit floats your boat).

I wrote an article that ran in The Globe and Mail a couple days ago about what seems to me to be the best Canadian-made option for those seeking gluten free beer in Ontario: Montreal’s Glutenberg, who have been sort of trickling into the Ontario market by way Keep6Imports a few years ago, a failed crowdfunding campaign to get into the Beer Store in 2015, then with a smallish LCBO release, and now, finally with province-wide release thanks to Beau’s All Natural Brewery. (Coincidentally, Josh Rubin, the beer writer for the Toronto Star, also wrote an article about gluten free beer that ran a couple days before mine in which he too chose Glutenberg as his pick for GF options in Ontario).

Their beers are made from 100% gluten free ingredients like millet, buckwheat, quinoa, and, as cofounder David Cayer told me a while ago, “unique and innovative brewing techniques” to “develop and brew the best possible gluten-free beers.”

As I noted in my Globe article that announced their new distribution deal, the company makes about 20 different beers, but right now you can just find the Blonde in Ontario (you used to be able to get their Pale Ale and Red Ale at barVolo in Toronto when that bar’s owners were still importing Glutenberg products for them. I’m not sure if this is still the case…).

In 2012, the company swept the gluten-free beer category at the World Beer Cup in San Diego and since then their beers have been consistently outperforming other deglutenized or gluten free beers on Ratebeer and Beer Advocate.

“We make great beers that happen to be gluten free,” Cayer told me. “Even if the GF beer market was slowing down, we know that people would still buy our products.”

Indeed, it ain’t bad.

Frankly, I’d be much more interested in the other beers in Glutenberg’s lineup arriving here, but the Blonde is a decent “lagerish” beer and, as an opening salvo, probably the smart move from a business standpoint for a venture into widespread distribution. It seems you still gotta get those plain-Jane beer drinkers on board if you want to make any money in this province, whether you’re brewing with or without gluten.

snowmanFinally, Ontario actually did have our very own, dedicated, gluten-free brewing company for a while. Founded by Kevin Snow and Hirsch Goodman, Snowman Brewing Co. was by all accounts making some nice gluten-free beer–in a variety of styles: their mainstay Top Hat Ale was a 4.7% English ale, but they also did one-offs for festivals, including Rambam Belgian Quad, a Belgian IPA, and even a few stout styles–alas that seems to have come to an end.

They were actually still brewing beer (out of Etobicoke’s Black Oak Brewery) up until a few months ago but they have recently ceased production because sales weren’t what they expected. I spoke to co-founder Hirsch Goodman via email earleir this week.

“[Ending production] wasn’t due to lack of demand for our product, we had LOTS of demand for our beer from the gluten free community, we just couldn’t get it into their hands,” he told me. “The problem was that we underestimated the need for good marketing and also distribution (being a contract brewer prohibited us from selling our product at the brewery, so we were restricted to selling directly to licensees). We also didn’t focus our marketing and sales effectively.”

Despite these setbacks, Goodman seems confident their beers will one day see the light of day again. “We are capable of producing almost any style of beer as a result of the process we developed to malt gluten free grains, which no one out there is able to do,” he says. The goal, he says is to some day put that process to work for an existing brewery that might be looking to add a gluten free brand to their lineup.

And THAT is pretty much where we’re at for gluten free beer options in Ontario right now. Of course, last week Australian scientists claimed they have developed the world’s first World Health Organization-approved gluten-free barley, so it seems like there is potential for the entire market to shift soon…Stay tuned.

And of course, there’s always cider…

If you read this post, and you’re not a regular reader of my blog, it’s likely you ended up here because you can’t digest gluten and you really miss being able to have a beer. I get that.

But I have to add a note here that if you’re really into supporting local companies making interesting alcoholic beverages that are safe for the gluten intolerant, it’s extremely worthwhile to seek out the products made by Ontario’s growing collection of cideries. Companies like Revel Cider and West Avenue Cider are making innovative ciders that experiment with barrel-aging, funky yeasts, and dry-hopping in ways that put a lot of our Ontario brewers to shame. For reals. Cider can be super interesting and delicious. Get on it.

Start your adventure here, with the Ontario Craft Cider Association member listing.

Author: Ben

http://www.bensbeerblog.com

19 thoughts on “Let’s talk about gluten free beer

  1. Ben there is more to gluten-free beer than both you and Josh Rubin report. The Beer Store sells three different ones. I know Josh knows of at least one of them (I sent him samples). The three do not include Mongozo which is not considered gluten-free in Canada and other countries because, well, its made with barley. The Canadian Celiac Association does not recommend these barley based beers for Celiacs because testing is not accurate on fermented products. Gluten is a protein fragment that causes health problems in some people. De-glutenizing the fragments further fragments gluten and does not remove all gluten. Gluten may be reduced. We just don’t know by how much.

    This year celebrates 500 years of the Reinheitsgebot and I know German brewers that lament its existence because of its narrow definition of beer that has historically granted exceptions. Hefeweizen and Gose are prime examples that use wheat. Reinheitsgebot champions barley because in Bavaria in 1516 someone wanted to corner the market for wheat. Further proof that defining a beer is subjective in the eyes of not just Health Canada. Gluten-free beer is still beer.

    Parda Mancini
    The healthy Wine Agent

    p.s. Let me know if you’d like samples

    • Hey Padra, I spoke above about the fact that Mongozo is deglutenized and not “gluten free.”

      Also, I had hoped my inclusion of quotation marks in definitions would make it clear that my discussion of Health Canada definitions was simply illustrating their definitions and not necessarily endorsing those definitions.

      But I do think the word “beer” ought to have a clear definition, otherwise we’ll start to see all manner of shitty coolers, margarita junk, pomegranate-a-ritas, etc. being labeled as beer (more so than it already is).

      As for there being more to GF beer, I will wholly admit I didn’t know there were more options at the Beer Store. It has just been brought to my attention on facebook, for example, that we can get Stone Delicious IPA here. I don’t shop at The Beer Store so this may have hampered my ability to be comprehensive here. I’d be more than willing to try the other GF options out there and run a follow up blog post on those options.

  2. Strathroy Brewing makes a couple decent sorghum based ones.

  3. I think you have hit the nail on the head here. With the narrow definition of beer and the problem with getting other grains malted (teff), there is little appetite for brewers to stretch into the market. Snowman was just getting it’s groove on so that they had beer that I liked rather than beer to drink because you are gluten intolerant or Crohn’s sufferer, etc. Some of their early examples were sorghum bombs but they had started to get it.

    So, with a change in definition, an opening of the market slightly, and a home grown option; celiacs make soon have good options in Ontario, not just a few niche and specialty bits. Thanks for the roundup.

  4. Thanks for the mention in this blog, Ben.
    I would like to correct and clarify.
    Snowman is still in business….for now. We don’t brew anymore, but our remaining inventory of Top Hat English Amber Ale is available at Kupfert and Kim in Toronto. We are still capable of making gluten free malted grain. And that is the key issue here. Other GF “beers” are made from syrups, juices, roasted nuts, etc. So, the real distinction is the lack of a malted grain. That’s what provides the body and flavour in beer. We at Snowman, have the only machine in the world capable of producing quality, consistent, malted GF grains capable of being brewed into beer in the volumes needed by production breweries (we can do 2500 lbs per week of malted grain). And because we malt GF grain, any beer style can be produced, using the same methods as regular beer. Our Belgium Quad “The Rambam” won the gold medal at the Ontario Craft Brewing Awards.
    So, this is an impassioned plea to all those beer companies either already in the GF beer market, or thinking of entering. You can do what others have done, and make a beverage from syrups, juices, roasted nuts etc. that ends up being like all the others and not really “beer”, or you can use real malted GF grain and standard brewing methods to produce real craft beer that is GF. And as a bonus, use home grown Ontario technology and innovation!
    If we don’t get collaborators, partners, breweries soon, our unique machine and technology will be lost, and if you ask all of our fans here in Ontario, that will be a big loss!
    You can contact email us via hirsch at snowmanbrewing dot com.

  5. I’m 100% positive that Snowman could make a go of it on the back of the GF quad alone. It is MAGNIFICENT. I still remember it. Here are my notes from 2011! https://hopsandmalt.wordpress.com/tag/snowman-brewing/

    • David:

      Glad you liked it! Actually, our last kegs of The Rambam are pouring over at Lansdowne Brewery right now!

      Also,I still have the recipe and the malt, so I would be happy to work with an existing brewery to bring it back!

  6. Excellent story Ben. I am much smarter having read it. I also see a future where you do a follow-up blog titled: Ben Johnson visits The Beer Store

  7. Hey Ben, great article pointing out some of the different options available to people avoiding beer because of gluten issues. Let me add myself to the list endorsing Kevin and Hirsch from Snowman Brewing. Their beers are excellent – period. The fact that they are gluten free is a bonus. If they were more widely available, I would be drinking them even though I have no problems with gluten myself. I hope they find the right partners soon.

    Just to let your readers know, Fermentations, the Toronto brew-your-own on the Danforth that you’ve written about previously, has been using the same gluten reducing enzyme used by Stone Brewery and others to get any of our 100% barley beers down below the 20 parts per million celiac threshold (usually around 10 parts per million as well) for about a year.

    That means many beer drinkers with gluten sensitivities should be able to enjoy just about any major beer style they wish again (IPAs, tripels, imperial stouts, saisons, bitters etc.) without having a reaction. I would recommend trying one of the commercial “gluten-reduced” choices first before investing in a whole batch of our beer. We now have many current customers who are extremely happy to be able to enjoy beer again after having to avoid it for many years. No one’s reported a reaction yet (we always rinse out our kegs and lines out first as well).

    The enzyme does not alter the flavour of the beers in any way that we’ve been able to perceive so it is possible for the gluten sensitive and the “non-afflicted”customers to share batches without compromise.

  8. I hate to say it, but the real things holding Gluten Free Beer back aren’t the definition of beer. The issue is twofold. the fact that the people who suffer from Celiac Disease simply do not comprise a large enough market to make it profitable is the first issue. The second issue is that Celiac Disease is a legitimate medical issue that people are trying to work around to their detriment. When you think about the Gluten Free Beers on the market, the vast majority of them (like Mongozo, for instance) are attempting to taste like regular beer. So, what people with Celiac Disease are really seeking is the ability to drink as if they do not suffer from the condition. Normality, in other words, is defined in this case by the ability to drink a lowest common denominator Euro Lager.

    It is not unlike when Lay’s introduced their WOW chips in the 1990’s for low fat and low cholesterol diets. They were made with a fat substitute called Olestra which had horrific digestive side effects like anal leakage. Now, it never seemed to occur to the people who had high cholesterol that perhaps they should not have been eating potato chips at all.

    I rather suspect that the best thing possible for sufferers of Celiac Disease as a condition is if we all push to make cider more accepted as a social occasion beverage. My understanding for the most part is that these are people who want to drink a beer as a social marker on a night out with friends. While it seems unlikely that a wide swathe of restaurants are going to cater to the 1% of the population with Celiac Disease, a push in the popularity of cider would be similarly accommodating and more utile to the restaurants interested in providing options.

    • Jordan, I’m going to have to respectively disagree. The only reason people drink barley malt beer nowadays is because of Western historical reasons (Reinheitsgebot). Other cultures produced beer with other ingredients (millet in Africa, rice in Asia, etc). There’s no reason why we should limit beer making to only barley malt. At a time when brewers are experimenting with all kinds of unique ingredients, it seems to me the only ingredient they aren’t experimenting with is malt. Why can’t we produce beers made from non-barley malts too?

      I think the brewing community should not be afraid to experiment more with other malt types, and if as an added bonus celiac and gluten free people are able to enjoy these beers as well then it’s better for everyone.

      • Oh, sure. In theory, other grains will work for beer and I’m aware of other cultural antecedents.

        But that’s a terrible comparison you’re making. It’s like saying that the only reason people use Android or Apple phones is because of the history of the respective companies. Sure, if you’re willing to strip away the idea, the investment, the history, the cultural affect, the enormous resource base, the sheer inculcate advertising and market presence, then of course you could introduce a third kind of phone.

        But people would still compare it to the other two and they’ve got such a large heard start that it would probably be difficult to find investment.

  9. *respectfully … gotta love autocorrect!

  10. Jordan the fragmented gluten free beer market may be a small segment of the total beer market but the challenges are not entirely as you suggest.

    Celiacs may comprise only 1% of the market but 80% of them remain undiagnosed. North American physicians have lagged in diagnosing celiacs when compared to Europe. It can take 7 to 8 years to get diagnosed in North America from when symptoms first manifest. There is latent demand.

    Gluten-free beer drinkers have been underserved for years by beers that used adjuncts and did not appeal to many celiac beer drinkers. This drove some to cider or they just didn’t bother with the beers offered. Not all will choose cider as celiacs often have other sensitivities (sulphur is added to cider).

    The market is also underserved because of the barriers to entry in Canada. We don’t have a true free-market for any alcohol in Canada. The unlevel playing field is further hindered by liquor retailers in Canada, some government run, putting sales before health by promoting beer made with barley as gluten free or gluten-reduced.

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) states “”Low gluten” or “reduced gluten” claims are not acceptable in Canada, including in relation to foods containing less than 20 ppm of gluten. These claims are considered to be misleading, as consumers with celiac disease may be led to believe that these foods are safe to consume, while medical advice recommends a gluten-free diet.” http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/allergens-and-gluten/eng/1388152325341/1388152326591?chap=2

    A gluten-free claim is any representation or advertising that states, suggests or implies that a food is free from gluten. B.24.018 of the Food and Drug Regulation prohibits the labelling, packaging, advertising or sale of a food in a manner likely to create an impression that it is a gluten-free food if the food contains any gluten protein or modified gluten protein, including any gluten protein fraction from wheat, oats, barley, rye, triticale or their hybridized strains.

    Most celiacs I speak with, but certainly not all, do not want to take the chance consuming a barley based beer with less gluten, even if the EU calls them gluten free because of their lower standard.

    Health Canada’s position is “that there is uncertainty around complete removal of gluten from beer or beer-like products made using barley, oats, rye, triticale, wheat or their hybridized strains. The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) will object to the use of a gluten-free” claim on beers produced from one of these grains [B.01.101.1(1)].”

    When you factor in that a further 6% of Canadians are avoiding gluten because of gluten sensitivity, and a further 22% are avoiding gluten for a growing number of reasons there is a growing demand for gluten-free beer. http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/processed-food-and-beverages/reports-and-resources-food-processing-innovation-and-regulations/gluten-free-claims-in-the-marketplace/?id=1397673574797

  11. If what you say goes, then there would be no innovation or new beer ideas…….or perhaps you are just correctly observing what is happening in the Ontario market. See Ben’s post about the internal marketing Shock Top document…..

    • There’s plenty of innovation and there are plenty of new ideas. People are branching out to non traditional grains in any number of recipes. However, innovation that is hampered by significant constraint in terms of ingredients and has an intentionally limited marketing target is probably not innovation that’s going to be easy to fund.

  12. Jordan the fragmented gluten free beer market may be a small segment of the total beer market but the challenges are not entirely as you suggest.

    Celiacs may comprise only 1% of the market but 80% of them remain undiagnosed. North American physicians have lagged in diagnosing celiacs when compared to Europe. It can take 7 to 8 years to get diagnosed in North America from when symptoms first manifest. There is latent demand.

    Gluten-free beer drinkers have been underserved for years by beers that used adjuncts and did not appeal to many celiac beer drinkers. This drove some to cider or they just didn’t bother with the beers offered. Not all will choose cider as celiacs often have other sensitivities (sulphur is added to cider).

    The market is also underserved because of the barriers to entry in Canada. We don’t have a true free-market for any alcohol in Canada. The unlevel playing field is further hindered by liquor retailers in Canada, some government run, putting sales before health by promoting beer made with barley as gluten free or gluten-reduced.

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) states “”Low gluten” or “reduced gluten” claims are not acceptable in Canada, including in relation to foods containing less than 20 ppm of gluten. These claims are considered to be misleading, as consumers with celiac disease may be led to believe that these foods are safe to consume, while medical advice recommends a gluten-free diet.” http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/allergens-and-gluten/eng/1388152325341/1388152326591?chap=2

    A gluten-free claim is any representation or advertising that states, suggests or implies that a food is free from gluten. B.24.018 of the Food and Drug Regulation prohibits the labelling, packaging, advertising or sale of a food in a manner likely to create an impression that it is a gluten-free food if the food contains any gluten protein or modified gluten protein, including any gluten protein fraction from wheat, oats, barley, rye, triticale or their hybridized strains.

    Most celiacs I speak with, but certainly not all, do not want to take the chance consuming a barley based beer with less gluten, even if the EU calls them gluten free because of their lower standard.

    Health Canada’s position is “that there is uncertainty around complete removal of gluten from beer or beer-like products made using barley, oats, rye, triticale, wheat or their hybridized strains. The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) will object to the use of a gluten-free” claim on beers produced from one of these grains [B.01.101.1(1)].”

    When you factor in that a further 6% of Canadians are avoiding gluten because of gluten sensitivity, and a further 22% are avoiding gluten for a growing number of reasons there is a growing demand for gluten-free beer. http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/processed-food-and-beverages/reports-and-resources-food-processing-innovation-and-regulations/gluten-free-claims-in-the-marketplace/?id=1397673574797

    • So let me understand your position. 1% of Canadians have Celiac Disease. That is to say approximately 35o,000 people. 80% of that 1% are not diagnosed and therefore encounter terrible difficulty when eating gluten and are therefore likely to avoid beer. That means that of celiac sufferers, your total market is reduced to 20% of 350,000 people or approximately 70,000 across Canada. Now, of that 70,000 people, statistically speaking, 25% are probably underage and cannot buy beer. That’s 16,500 gone. 53,500 remain. Some of those people are way beyond their prime beer drinking years. Let’s call that another 25%. They might buy a beer once in a while. 35,000 people remain. Many of them don’t drink beer at all because of spurious claims about de-glutenization and various levels of sensitivity. Let’s call that 50% of the remainder. You’re down to a total Celiac sufferer market of 16,500. In one of the largest landmasses in the world. There are 440 Beer Store locations. If those people with Celiac disease were allocated geographically WITHIN ONTARIO, they would make up 37.5 customers per store. But they’re not.

      The rest of your market is based on the idea that 6% of Canadians suffer from a sensitivity which may or may not scientifically speaking have anything to do with gluten according to recent research. http://ncp.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/15/0884533614529163.abstract

      The remainder of your market, 22% of Canadians, some of whom drink beer, are avoiding gluten because they have probably self diagnosed as a result of specific scientific illiteracy and Paltrowian buzzwords. When that trend goes away, so will the market. I don’t see a lot of Atkins literature kicking around.

      There was not enough market in Ontario to get Glutenberg into The Beer Store. 17 backers contributed $1300. Show me where this rabid market that you believe exists is located.

      Look, I don’t mean to be a jerk about it, but even if those 16,500 people bought a case of beer a week each (they don’t) it would total something like 71,000 HL of beer annually. I suspect Celiac Sufferers probably buy about a tenth of that volume. The difficulty then is distributing a beer to 16,500 evenly distributed across Canada for a brewery that makes approximately 10,000 HL a year. That would be insane for a normal brewery with less overhead. The model just doesn’t work from a mathematical standpoint.

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