Beer's Great Gluten War Heats Up

Is the top selling gluten-free beer gluten-free enough? Are its competitors beer?

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 “made from ingredients that contain gluten (cannot) be labeled as ‘gluten-free.’” 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 rye—the base for beer— 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 “gluten-sensitive.” Locally, it’s a big industry. Four dedicated gluten-free bakeries have sprouted up in Portland with a full baker’s dozen offering gluten-free breads and treats.

$3.5 billion in 2010

Only a few months ago, Widmer Bros., a division of Craft Brew Alliance (CBA), the nation’s ninth’s largest brewing company, released Omission Gluten Free Lager and Gluten Free Pale Ale. Widmer is selling the beer locally, and plans roll it out nationwide soon.

Here’s 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 beer—unlike so many competitors—yet 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 isn’t 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.

Deschutes’s gluten-free beer, on tap only at its brewpubs in Portland and Bend, is made from brown rice and sorghum so it’s safe for “the most sensitive celiac.” 

“It is interesting from a scientific standpoint to experiment with enzymes that break down gluten proteins in the brewing process to below testable limits… but we are not 100 percent confident that these beers would be safe for the most sensitive celiac to drink,” said Deschutes brewer Veronica Vega. “We will not put out a beer that will challenge the confidence our consumers.”

Portland is also home to the nation’s first dedicated gluten-free brewery

TTB operates with the “best available information,” said Hogue, and gluten-free beers pose a problem. Whereas there are accurate tests for gluten content in bread, pasta and cupcakes, “Right now, no test will validate accurate gluten content of a fermented product, considering fermentation drastically, chemically changes that product.” He says the ban on gluten-free labeling for beer brewed from deglutenized malted barley is “subject to change as the science gets better.”

Widmer is confident in its product. It had better be, since the CEO as well as the brewmaster’s 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 “to operate within the regulations that they have,” but confident that they will “evolve over time.”

"I don’t see (the ruling) as a negative at all at this point,” he says. “Work is being done on the science.”

Michaelson points out that despite Omission debuting in April, according to market research group SymphonyIRI data it's already “the top selling gluten-free beer in the market place at this point.”

Yes, it’s selling better than four-year veteran Redbridge from Budweiser.

Whether the Bureau’s labeling restriction is lifted or not, bottom line, says Michaelson: “If someone is concerned at all, they shouldn’t drink it.”

One ironic quirk of alcohol-related bureaucracy is that the TTB gets to rule that deglutenized beers cannot be labeled gluten-free, but can’t make any rulings on the labels of "beers" made with sorghum or rice because, according to law, they’re not “malt beverages.”

That means the rice and sorghum beverages are only “beer” for the purposes of taxation.