The Politics Of Defining Gluten-Free Beer…

I have written extensively about gluten-free beers from their first appearance. I always make a point of trying every gluten-free beer I can find, especially during the GABF. I have several friends who suffer from/have to deal with Celiac’s or are gluten intolerant in some form and they all say the same thing: “We miss beer.” And beer misses them. As a beer lover, I can imagine no culinary fate worse than having to give up the occasional IPA or pilsener. So I do what I can to promote these beers. I have had several dozen gluten-free beers and some of them are pleasant to taste, while some are hard to consume. But, let’s face it, a drinker would never confuse a gluten-free beer, such as those made with sorghum or buckwheat, with a beer made with barley. That is until the Omission line of beers from Widmer Brothers Brewing in Oregon.

The Omission Pale Ale is a bright, beautiful, and lively pale ale. It doesn’t taste like some odd, oft-neglected grain or smell of some baked good you might find in an abandoned head shop. Instead, it tastes like beer. Honest to goodness beer. And good beer at that. The Omission Lager is similarly a very nice, clean beer, one you would never know was gluten-free. I highly recommend both beers, which now have near nationwide distribution, to all of my friends who suffer from Celiac’s or gluten intolerance. All batches of the beers are tested by an independent lab to ensure that their gluten levels fall below the general industry standards of 20 ppm (parts per million), with the lab results posted online. While Omission acknowledges that the evidence is not conclusive regarding whether these or frankly any of the gluten-free beers will work for most or all sufferers, I have seen and heard from many consumers that they’ve not had adverse reactions to the beers.

So while attending the GABF awards and watching the Gluten-Free Beer category come up on the screen, I expected a near clean sweep by Omission. To my shock and utter confusion, Omission didn’t receive a single medal. I later learned from a return tweet that the company was not allowed to enter the competition in this category.

For its part, the folks at Omission acknowledge:

“According to federal guidelines, we aren’t legally allowed to claim that Omission beer is gluten-free outside of Oregon because the beer is brewed with malted barley. While the FDA proposed to define the term “gluten-free,” that definition has not been formally adopted by the organization. Part of the definition proposed in 2007, and again in 2011, states that a product may not be labeled as gluten-free if it contains “an ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain that has been processed to remove gluten, if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food.

The Brewers Association defines the Gluten-Free Beer category in this way:

17. Gluten-Free Beer

A beer (lager, ale or other) that is made from fermentable sugars, grains and converted carbohydrates. Ingredients do not contain gluten, in other words zero gluten (No barley, wheat, spelt, oats, rye, etc.). May or may not contain malted grains that do not contain gluten. Brewers typically design and identify these beers along other style guidelines with regard to flavor, aroma and appearance profile. NOTE: These guidelines do not supersede any government regulations. Wine, mead, flavored malt beverages or beverages other than beer as defined by the TTB (U.S. Trade and Tax Bureau) are not considered “gluten-free beer” under these guidelines. To allow for accurate judging the brewer must identify the ingredients and fermentation type used to make the beer, and/or the classic beer style being elaborated upon (if there is one) with regard to flavor, aroma and appearance.

The craft beer industry is no stranger to infighting over definitions and labeling and this particular style seems marked to continue that trend. The world of defining and categorizing gluten-free products remains similarly murky and surprisingly political. With this said, the Omission beers routinely result in about 6 ppm of gluten, well below the industry standards, and excluding them from the world’s most celebrated beer competition that could promote drinkable beers for legions of Celiac and gluten intolerance sufferers seems short-sighted. The Brewers Association, its staff, and supporters are free to re-write these guidelines in any way they see fit and are not bound by yet-to-be-issued regulations from the TTB, FDA, or any other government agency.

The Gluten-Free Beer category needs to be reworked to ensure the inclusion of beers made with deglutenized barley whose gluten properties fall below industry established standards (say 20 ppm (parts per million)). While I acknowledge that admitting Omission to the category (which can be renamed to reflect the change) is a little like allowing Prince Fielder to sub in your five-year-old’s T-ball game, the issue is clearly important to millions of those who can’t process beers containing gluten. If the association can find room for Indigenous Beers, Specialty Beers, and Field Beers, it surely can find a place for the likes of Omission.

I acknowledge that this is a rapidly growing area and one that is open to some debate (one that exceeds the scope of this post). With that said, I hope the Brewers Association will address this situation next year.

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The GABF That Was And Wasn’t…

I’ve just returned from my 15th annual trip to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. That number still boggles my mind and I’ve seen the fest (from its days at Currigan Hall), the City of Denver, and the attendant brewing and drinking communities change greatly in that time. Taking a cue from another beer writer, I’ve decided to avoid writing another lengthy diatribe on the GABF (like the controversial one from last year) and here’s an only slightly less diatribe-y list of my thoughts on this year’s GABF.

Let’s Start With The Positive…

1. What an electric moment it was when Jack McAuliffe walked onto the stage during the awards presentation. It was great to see him receive the praise he never did during his brief brewing days.

2. Denver is becoming one hell of a city. I’ve been attending the GABF for 15 years and the changes have come fast and furious in that time. The last year has seen a massive amount of new construction and the continued expansion and growing prominence of new neighborhoods, such as the Highlands. No longer are visitors restricted to scouring the same two or three bars in the increasingly seedy LoDo district. By avoiding the usual suspects, I also ate (and largely drank) better than I ever have in Denver during the fest. The potted salted caramel cheesecake at Colt & Gray was reason enough to leave LoDo.

3. It was fantastic to visit a bevy of new breweries of varying sizes that have opened up in Denver in the last week to year. From the unbelievably tiny Wit’s End Brewing to the fantastically communal Denver Beer Company to the excellent Renegade Brewing Company, these new entrants have brought a renewed vitality to a self-proclaimed “Napa Valley of Beer” whose scene was frankly getting a little stale. That several of the new faces also won their first GABF medals was a great celebration of their hard work.

4. The best beer I had at the festival was Remi’s Saison IPA from the Equinox Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. This was apparently (and sadly) a one-off collaboration with a local homebrewer, named Remi Bonnart, who won the National Homebrewer of the Year title in 2010. Tasty and intriguing stuff.

5. Despite some grumbles from attendees regarding floor space, I actually thought recreating the 30th anniversary floor plan with the original brewers was kind of a nice touch.

6. Thank god that Falling Rock finally reopened the lower pit area in front of the bar (if only for one night). I attended one Dogfish Head event and an Oktoberfest style event in this area a long time ago and the extra room makes the difference between being smashed together in a hot assed bar after standing in a half-block long line and having the ability to actually talk and share pints with friends. Let the nerds pack together in the basement. I’ll take the outside pit any day. We almost skipped Falling Rock this year (in part because of Point 2 above) due to the horribly packed environs this central meeting point offers experiences every year. Let’s hope this happens again next year.

The Less Positive Parts Of The Festival…

1. I have no idea what a dozen or so of the awarded beer styles mean. I’m sure you can explain to me what Field or Indigenous Beers are but the categories left folks around me at the awards presentation scratching their heads.

2. I really wasn’t blown away by many of the beers that I tried at the festival. Perhaps it is age, cynicism, or something else, but I thought the overall trend was towards pretty mainstream flavors and without many particularly noteworthy offerings. I did have some solid lager beers and saw more of them at the fest, which was a very positive trend. The IPA’s, however, tasted pretty samey across the board.

3. Considering this was the festival’s 30th anniversary, I expected the Brewers Association to celebrate with more events or to put a greater focus on it. The association really didn’t and it seemed a bit of an afterthought.

The Downright Disappointing Parts Of The Fest

There is only one point to be made here, with a few sub-points:

1. Where did all the brewers go?

1a. Putting the awards presentation aside, I saw or ran into a grand total of 5 brewers at the 2 sessions I attended. I’ve never experienced such a shortage in my years of attending.

1b. Brewers were as scarce at booths as sartorial good taste (paging Garrett) and sober restraint. I lamented this fact last year and called upon the Brewers Association to do something about it. Instead, I saw a lot of booths (even whole aisles) staffed only by volunteers (many of whom knew nothing about the beer–I heard one get both the beer’s style and brewer’s state wrong in one exchange with an inquiring consumer) or by faux-brewery staffers wearing brewery lanyards but who actually were just working as know-nothing stand-ins for their brewer buddies.

1c. A number of brewers either decided not to attend the GABF or were locked out from attending due to the awards and floor space closing up early. I heard several grumbles about some breweries being permitted to enter a large number of beers while others were then shut out entirely. I also heard from several well-known brewers that they were focusing on their local markets instead of attending the more national (or hyper-local, see below) GABF.

1d. It appears that the GABF is no longer vital to the industry nor a must-attend event for many brewers or beer lovers. It is at its essence grown into a company paid vacation (for admittedly hard-working) brewers and a gigantic local beer fest. Without the benefit of numbers, I would imagine that three-quarters of the attendees at minimum hail from within 30 miles of the 80202 area code. And while the hotels and car rentals are booked long in advance, beyond industry folks, the impact of the festival seems largely lost on many of the 49,000 attendees. And I understand why you would be hesitant to attend. If you run a little brewpub in Virginia or even a large craft brewery in Boston, it’s hard to say what value the GABF offers your brand or brewery. (With this said, I need to ask someone like Joe Short why he spends so much time and money on his GABF presentation. I may be missing a whole side to this or maybe he just likes to party). Perhaps the GABF medal is still a coveted commodity and it’s clear that many breweries still want to take a shot and send a few beers to compete. But the festival itself seems much an afterthought. It has simply turned into the world’s largest bar for Denver-ites. Unless you’re trying to sell beer in Colorado, it seems as if the festival has turned into the last place you’ll see a brewer during the last week in September.

Reading over my post from last year on the unfortunate aspects of the Great American Beer Festival, I think most of the criticisms remain true and that the opportunities for beer education and brand building have essentially been lost at the GABF. For next year, I hope the Brewers Association considers the simple point I made last year: breweries that choose to pour beer on the festival floor should be required to have a representative at the booth at all times.

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A Tale of Two Beer Festivals…

As legend has it, homebrewing advocate Charlie Papazian and beer writer Michael Jackson gazed over the bounty of excellent beers on the floor of the Great British Beer Festival in the early 1980s and an idea struck Papazian. He turned to Jackson and remarked that he wanted to hold a similar festival back in the United States. Jackson nodded in understanding, and wryly retorted, “yes, but where will you get the beer?”

The first Great American Beer Festival, held in a small Boulder hotel ballroom in 1982, saw beers from around twenty breweries, whose numbers mainly included the few regional breweries still in existence, along with upstarts such as Sierra Nevada and Boulder Brewing. In the truest sense of, “if you build it, they will come,” a fast forward nearly three decades finds the GABF to have developed into the world’s largest beer festival, boasting 3,500 beers from 500 breweries.

The grand daddy of beer fests, the GBBF too remains strong and still sets an enviable example for other events. The GBBF at Earl’s Court is a curious place where servers pour beers by the pint, in actual, proper glasses, and where many attendees stand around engaged in conversation while slowly enjoying their ales. To be sure, the GBBF suffers from some of the same issues that plague other fests, but seemingly to a lesser extent. While people still cheer when a pint shatters on the cement floor, no one tries to smack the glass from your hands as with recent GABF’s. There is also something remarkably adult about the GBBF’s format, where the larger vessels counsel visitors to slow down and really get to know their beers. And with bottles available for take away—and often at prices better than what we get in the states—GABF veterans can be forgiven their astonishment.

But there are signs of change at the traditionalist GBBF as well. While the real ale booths remain well-attended, it’s the foreign bars, filled with American, Belgian, and German treats that truly pack in the crowds. Perhaps out of sheer novelty, the often unbelievable prices, or maybe as a palate bashing break from mellower British offerings, these beers remain in constant demand and disappear quickly. Starting with close to 100 casks and hundreds of bottles on the first day of the festival, which was mainly open to brewers and other members of the trade, nearly everything was ravaged by the end of day two. Plenty of thirsty, disappointed beer enthusiasts could be expected for the final two days of the event. Beyond the foreign bars, by far the most popular British beers at the fest had some sort of American connection. I watched the Colorado American IPA from Red Squirrel enveloped in a constant stream of pours until it kicked, all while dozens of other nearby traditional beers sat untouched. Similar scenes could be experienced across the hall with BrewDog’s Punk IPA. Where the IPA moniker once suggested stodgy, old beers your dad would drink, by the end of day two, attendees had killed every IPA at the fest, an incredible change of circumstances in only a few years.

To be sure, hundreds of brilliant, traditional milds, bitters, and porters dominated the beer engines and the awards presentations. All the excitement of the fest, however, centered on the less established offerings and suggested that the future of British beer might not rest in campaigns to return to perceived glory days of old but in the splendor and whimsy of brewing innovation. As brewers at the GABF continue to experiment and push the definitions of beer and the boundaries of the drinking public, it’ll be interesting to see what results in the tug of war between the American and British brewing models in another twenty-five years.

–Article appeared in Issue 43 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Back From Denver, No Idea Where To Start…

Just recently back from Denver and things remain a touch too chaotic. At some point I’ll post some thoughts about the festival and the attendant happenings, but mainly the trip served as a much welcomed respite that was surprisingly not beer-related. My calendar tells me that the Belgian Beer Festival kicks off in a few short weeks so things will quickly get beer-related again.

Congrats again to the few New England brewers who decided to send their beers to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival and to those who won their fair share. And for the rest of you, you were robbed…

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