On May 16, the three Portland breweries which make gluten-free beer—Widmer Bros., Deschutes, and Harvester—stood shoulder to shoulder as Mayor Sam Adams declared it Gluten Free Beer Day.
Such innocent times!
A new ruling is complicating things in the burgeoning gluten-free beer market. Eight days after the celebration, the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (known as the "TTB") handed down a verdict that could push one of the three brewers off the podium.
According to the TTB, wine, beer or distilled spirits âmade from ingredients that contain gluten (cannot) be labeled as âgluten-free.ââ This could spell trouble for Widmer, which has invested significant time and money in a new gluten-free beer.
Glutens are proteins found in grains such as barley, wheat, and ryeâthe base for beerâ that have been blamed for a variety of autoimmune disorders. Doctors have long known some people have an extreme sensitivity, called celiac disease. Lately, gads of folks have either been medically or self diagnosed as celiacs or âgluten-sensitive.â Locally, itâs a big industry. Four dedicated gluten-free bakeries have sprouted up in Portland with a full bakerâs dozen offering gluten-free breads and treats.
$3.5 billion in 2010
Hereâs the kicker: Unlike other gluten-free beers, which are typically made from sorghum and usually taste nothing like actual beer, Omission is made from traditional ingredients, including barley. The beers are then deglutenized enzymatically. The result is a beer that tastes like beerâunlike so many competitorsâyet has allegedly imperceptible levels of gluten. Not zero gluten, just almost none, not unlike caffeine in decaf coffee or alcohol in non-alcoholic beer. Widmer isnât the first to use this process; it's just the first to do it commercially in the U.S. Development began six years ago and researched and tested full-throttle for the last two.
Adopting guidelines set forth by organizations within the World Health Organization, the FDA has said food labeled as gluten-free cannot exceed 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. Omission beers are at 5-6 ppm. As a point of reference, Widmer Drifter Pale Ale comes back at 50-100 ppm.
There are new gluten-free beers coming out all the time.
Deschutesâs gluten-free beer, on tap only at its brewpubs in Portland and Bend, is made from brown rice and sorghum so itâs safe for âthe most sensitive celiac.â
âIt is interesting from a scientific standpoint to experiment with enzymes that break down gluten proteins in the brewing process to below testable limitsâ¦ but we are not 100 percent confident that these beers would be safe for the most sensitive celiac to drink,â said Deschutes brewer Veronica Vega. âWe will not put out a beer that will challenge the confidence our consumers.â
Portland is also home to the nationâs first dedicated gluten-free brewery
TTB operates with the âbest available information,â said Hogue, and gluten-free beers pose a problem. Whereas there are accurate tests for gluten content in bread, pasta and cupcakes, âRight now, no test will validate accurate gluten content of a fermented product, considering fermentation drastically, chemically changes that product.â He says the ban on gluten-free labeling for beer brewed from deglutenized malted barley is âsubject to change as the science gets better.â
Widmer is confident in its product. It had better be, since the CEO as well as the brewmasterâs wife are both diagnosed celiacs. CBA also expects the rules to evolve as the science gets better, sooner rather than later.
CEO Terry Michaelson, who became director at Widmer in 1994 and was diagnosed as a celiac six years later, said the company is working closely with the TTB, knowing it has âto operate within the regulations that they have,â but confident that they will âevolve over time.â
"I donât see (the ruling) as a negative at all at this point,â he says. âWork is being done on the science.â
Michaelson points out that despite Omission debuting in April, according to market research group SymphonyIRI data it's already âthe top selling gluten-free beer in the market place at this point.â
Yes, itâs selling better than four-year veteran Redbridge from Budweiser.
Whether the Bureauâs labeling restriction is lifted or not, bottom line, says Michaelson: âIf someone is concerned at all, they shouldnât drink it.â
One ironic quirk of alcohol-related bureaucracy is that the TTB gets to rule that deglutenized beers cannot be labeled gluten-free, but canât make any rulings on the labels of "beers" made with sorghum or rice because, according to law, theyâre not âmalt beverages.â
That means the rice and sorghum beverages are only âbeerâ for the purposes of taxation.