This October has been Celiac Awareness Month,* intended to promote awareness of the autoimmune deficiency triggered by the consumption of the glutens found in wheat, barley, and other cereal grains. That's right, the principal ingredient in beer. But the Craft Brew Alliance has been using this month to introduce their Omission gluten-free beer brand to adults whose celiac disease has forced them to give up the malty brew. On October 23, they held their Chicago event at the new FatPour Tap Works at 2005 W. Division.
While I have not had to deal with celiac, I have been writing about them as compared to regular beers. For years, "gluten-free beers" meant beer brewed with non-cereal grains like sorghum, millet, or rice. Most of these have had an unavoidable cider component.
In the past few years, though, a new process has been described that would use a specific enzyme to "denature" the proteins that produce glutens, during the brewing process. Two Brothers of Warrenville has been using this process to make their Prairie Path Golden Ale gluten-free for the past year. Now Omission is rolling out nationally with a GF lager and a pale ale.
Omission was developed at Widmer Brothers brewery in Portland, Oregon, now a part of Craft Brew Alliance with Red Hook.** CBA's Account manager, Paul Mott, told people at the FatPour event that their interest in a GF beer was more than professional, since their CEO had been diagnosed with celiac disease twelve years ago, and the wife of brewmaster Joe Casey learned she had it six years ago.
"We had been trying to do a gluten-free beer in Oregon, with little luck. Three years ago, we became aware of a new process that to denature glutens in the malt during the brewing process and we were able to develop that process for our brewery. Once the Omission is brewed, we put it through multiple tests at the brewery before we send each batch to be tested by a third party."
Omission beer is certified to meet the standard of less than 20 parts per million of gluten peptides. Each bottle's date code can be looked up at omissiontest.com to see the independent testing results for that particular batch.
Casey further explained how they arrived at their two styles for their first GF beers. "We started with the lager and pale ale styles because they are lighter in malts. The roast of the malt doesn't affect it but the amount of protein does, and the more proteins, the more gluten. So a higher gravity beer would mean a greater gluten potential. So we haven't explored removing gluten from very high gravity beers, or from wheat beer. Wheat contains much more gluten than barley does.
"The other consideration in producing these styles is that we're touching people right now who haven't had beer in a long time. So to come out with a super bitter IPA or heavy dark beer may be too much for them. We wanted something to bring them back into the fold, and the lager is good for that. And maybe as they become familiar with beer again, they can graduate to the pale ale. We do have an India Pale Ale coming out next year, but only in Oregon. Our goal is to make the beer indistinguishable from a sensory standpoint from a regular beer."
And how does Casey's celiac wife like the final result? "She loved it! She was my guinea pig, so she tasted many of my batches across a year and a half. The president of our company is also a Celiac, and they're both very thankful that they can enjoy craft beer again."
Casey says he has gotten lots of praise for his product: "We have been doing a lot of these small informal events across the country, where we're introducing the peer and interacting with Celiac patients, and restaurant chefs; people who have an interest in reducing glutens in their foods.
"I was in a grocery store, and I saw someone putting our beer into their cart. I introduced myself, told him I was the brewmaster for Omission, and he gave me a hug. And that type of thing just doesn't happen in a lot of industries, where we've really changed people's lives. It's great to be a part of it."
Mott added that since Omission was launched, they've captured 60% of the GF beer market in their distribution areas, at the same time that the GF segment has grown by 60%.
At present, the only other widely marketed GF beers using this process are Germany's Lammsbräu Glutenfrei (Reinheitsgebot compliant, as well!) and Spain's Estrella Damm Daura. Considering that Two Brothers and Widmer seem to have developed the application of the deglutinizing process independently, it may be a while before more brewers can adopt the practice. Casey says there is also a delay caused by their not being a US government standard for gluten-free foods.
"There's some work going on internationally. But this is a very intensive process. And the problem in the U.S. is that there is no defined standard for gluten-free labeling. The Food and Drug Administration has been sitting on a proposal since 2007. But lately they have been getting more heat from people like ourselves, and from the Celiac community, and from legislators, to make a decision. We're hoping that decision will align us with the standards the rest of the world is using, which is 20 ppm. Once that happens, we're expecting the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau) will fall in line with the FDA's standards."
I'll have my impressions of Omissions beers, and a note about the venue for this event, in a later article!
*There has not been an official designation of Celiac Awareness Month in the U.S. Canada's government proclaimed October as Celiac Awareness Month in 1987, and American food makers followed along with related promotions. In 2009, Canada moved the observance to May to keep in line with other countries. The U.S. Congress did name a National Celiac Awareness Day on September 10, 2010. But if it affects your life, every month is Celiac Awareness Month.
**CBA had a minority stake in Goose Island, before it was sold to Anheuser Busch InBev in 2011. AB/InBev also holds a stake in CBA.
Also, this Wednesday, check out my Musical Cheese radio show. Listen in at 9:00 p.m. on WIIT, 88.9 FM, from the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology. If you live more than a mile away from State and 31st, check the live stream at radio.iit.edu.