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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Death of the Flagship…

There comes a time in the story of every generation when the end draws near and a new chapter begins. In the craft beer industry, it has taken nearly thirty years for that page to turn but a new story of is about to be written, one where many of the beloved main characters are going to be written out or relegated to background roles.

For the better part of thirty years a handful of big name craft beers, from pioneering brewers, led the way as the industry’s ultimate front line warriors. Beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Samuel Adams Boston Lager were the twin drivers of craft beer’s narrative and growth. They fought a ground war in airport bars, chain restaurants, and convenience stores from coast to coast. They ran ad campaigns to bolster the public’s understanding of better beer and to teach consumers that taste, flavor, and character meant something. Their salesman built the tracks on which the craft beer express smoothly rides today.

A funny thing happened to these wildly successful brands on the way to craft beer utopia: a new generation of craft beer know-it-alls used the success of the beer pioneers against them. Content to reject Sam Adams, Sierra, and other popular brands as passe examples of the Old Guard, or even dismiss them as corporate beer shills, these founding fathers suddenly became something other than craft. Beyond the industry insider definitional debates over volume and barrelage numbers, the young started to prey on their elders in quiet but vicious fashion.

After enduring years of cheap shots, the generational attitude shift appears to have rubbed off on the beer pioneers themselves. For the first time, the future prospects of the industry’s two most stalwart brands, Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the yin and the yang of the craft beer world, look dim. Supplanted by seasonal brands, endangered by the race for the holy one-off grail, and lost in the hunt for more hops, these respected and balanced brands look increasingly out of place in the wider world of craft beer. And the pioneers seem to know it. In response, Sierra Nevada has focused a lot of energy on its Torpedo IPA brand, which ups the hops from the company’s style defining flagship Pale Ale. Even Boston Beer has launched its own IPA, Latitude 48, even as Twisted Tea offering surpasses Boston Lager as the company’s best selling product and a series of seasonal beers capture the attention of beer drinkers and distributors.

Other breweries aren’t immune from this shift. Widmer Hefeweizen receives a lot less attention from the brothers in the wake of new releases, including a rotating IPA series. The flagship brands of Redhook, Boulevard, and Deschutes have also started to lose focus to other brands and line extensions. Even once seemingly invincible Fat Tire is losing share of New Belgium Brewing’s mind to the brewery’s juggernaut Ranger IPA.

So in the end of an era for some pioneer brands, where consumers appear ready to fully embrace their long-developing beer brand promiscuity, the first era of the flagship is over. The ultimate result of the evolving craft beer consumer’s fickle palate is the end of relations with these former beaus, only to be replaced with a new, younger, and hipper string of beer relations.

While some nostalgia for these great and trailblazing brands is warranted, the new chapter shows the continued maturation and development of craft beer in America. Even as market share slowly inches up, consumers are deciding for themselves that they want new beers, happy to push beyond their early favorites into new and unexplored flavor territories.

–Article appeared in Issue 66 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Another Craft Brewer Response to Blue Moon Belgian White?

First, the news a few months back that our local Harpoon Brewery would be releasing a Belgian-style witbier to compete with the butt-kicking competitor from MillerCoors, the Blue Moon Belgian White. That beer is now starting to hit store shelves in the Boston area. Now, from across the country comes word that the Alaskan Brewing Company of Juneau is releasing its first new beer in two years. And you guessed it, the beer’s name: Alaskan White Ale. I didn’t see a lot of Blue Moon, or any other macro beer frankly, while traveling in Alaska last fall so I can’t say that this release is due to the success of Blue Moon. But I imagine the Summer Ale is also facing stiff competition in the brewery’s continental markets, especially as we recently learned of how tough things are for the Widmer Brothers and the Craft Brewers Alliance.

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Anheuser-Busch, InBev, and the Changing Face of American Beer…

The King is dead, long live the king. After more than a year of rumors, analyst whispers, and convenient press leaks, corporate brewing giant InBev finally made its move on America’s largest brewery. Founded as a small St. Louis brewing operation in 1860 by a German immigrant, the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company would in less than a century grow to become the country’s dominant brewing business and one of its most iconic brands.

In the days following InBev’s offer for A-B, even otherwise detached Joe Sixpacks tipped their recliners forward and took notice of history being made before their damp eyes. The unthinkable had occurred; the American eagle had fallen prey to a foreign hunter. Once laying claim to half of the American beer market, A-B has long served as a national monolith, imposing its 100-percent share of mind campaign from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The brewery’s television ads dominated the airwaves, its brands omnipresent on the taps of every neighborhood bar and in the cooler at the corner gas station.

A-B’s executives, including the recently installed August Busch IV, tried to put a brave face on a fight they knew they would lose. Wielding xenophobic appeals and feeble court actions, the tough, “not on my watch? rhetoric quickly crumbled in the face of a stagnant stock price, a failure to embrace international expansion, and a tumbling dollar that made the giant brewing company affordable.

What happens after this anti-climactic, first round knockout is anyone’s guess. While InBev has publicly stated that it will not immediately sink its cost-cutting teeth into A-B’s bloat, including its twelve American breweries, this pledge rings hollow for the long term. Ironically, America’s loss may very well turn out to be the world’s gain as Budweiser is now set to become the combined brewery’s international flagship brand. Dethroned as America’s king of beer sales by sibling Bud Light and then later demoted by Miller Lite, Bud will enjoy a renewed focus in a bevy of new markets around the globe. Cousin Stella Artois will inevitably take a backseat to an international icon known even in the world’s smallest villages.

The bigger and lesser understood concern is how the deal, which will create the world’s largest brewery, will affect smaller outfits. We know that Pabst and the Boston Beer Company are left to fight over which brewery is now the country’s largest American owned brewery, but the toll on craft breweries is difficult to determine. While Anheuser-Busch InBev will undoubtedly continue to wield considerable distribution power, better beer fans can rejoice that this deal happened in 2008 and not 1998. A decade ago, craft brewers fought fruitless daily battles for the attention of wholesaler and beer buyers. Today, many craft brewers can’t find the time to field calls from people lined up to bring their flavorful and well-priced beers to new markets.

While hard core beer geeks would argue to the contrary, the loss of Anheuser-Busch should also be seen as a setback to the cause of better beer. Driven by the success of craft brewers, A-B has been a high profile advocate of flavorful beer in recent years. Through its highs and lows, A-B’s attempt to elevate and enhance beer’s public image with its “Here’s to Beer? campaign was a welcomed addition to the good beer praising craft chorus. And while this campaign was scheduled to end within the next year, it’s difficult to picture InBev replicating the promotion in the future. We can also expect the company to reconsider the future prospects of the newly formed Michelob Brewing Company and its line of flavorful beers.

One final consequence of the deal, assuming it survives regulatory review, is that breweries such as Old Dominion, Widmer Brothers, Redhook, and Goose Island will become distant members of the global InBev family. In InBev’s drive to focus on its core brands, these historic craft brands may find a cool reception in the boardrooms of Leuven, Belgium.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VIII of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Some Disjointed Thoughts After My Return From Portland, Oregon…

Things have been a little quiet here due to a fair amount of recent traveling. In the last two months I’ve been in Florida, DC, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon and I’ve had some very different beer drinking experiences in these diverse parts of the country. I returned last evening from Portland, Oregon, where it was 58 degrees and rainy most of the week, to experience what the rest of the country has been enjoying, 95 degrees and humidity. It appears that gin and tonic season is suddenly upon us.

I think it may take some time to process my Oregon experiences. I’ve wanted to visit Portland, dubbed ‘Beervana’ by enterprising local publicists, for a number of years. It was perhaps just behind Bamberg on my to-do-list of beer destinations. And while Bamberg exceeded my already high expectations, I’m still trying to figure Portland out. It’s indisputable that quality craft beer has permeated the city. You can find a solid pint in nearly every restaurant in the city, even the diviest Chinese joint. Where most cities would offer Sapporo or another bland lager at an Asian restaurant, we always found Black Butte Porter or Mirror Pond Pale Ale from Deschutes and oddly, Fat Tire was everywhere. And while we visited a couple of dozen breweries, brewpubs, and beer bars in the course of five days in the city and the quality was always high, something about the experience failed to quite live up to the hype. The only comparison I have is Bamberg, which also has a dozen or more breweries, brewpubs, and beer bars in a small city. While Portland definitely offers a greater quantity of beer spots, I think Bamberg may be the better city for beer (even if the diversity of selection is less than Portland).

I can unequivocally say that the Oregon Brewers Guild did a great job with its guide to the state’s breweries. In a dozen pages in its “Guide to All Things Beer in Oregon,” the guild lists dozens of beer events and festivals, 139 breweries, brewpubs, and brewery tap houses, and 9 local tap houses. Add in a helpful map with locations of all of the above spots and visitors have a tremendously handy resource to finding quality pints in the state. I’ve recently been perusing similar guides from other areas and associations, including the San Diego Brewers Guild and the Michigan Brewers Guild, and firmly believe more state organizations should spend a few dollars to promote their interests in this accessible manner.

I can also unequivocally state that a brewery the size of Widmer should run more than 3 tours per week, serving approximately 45 people. In a time when Widmer ought to be concerned with its public image due to its relationship with Anheuser-Busch, one which I support, I think that engaging the community a little more might be wise.

While my feelings on Portland are not yet fully formed, I can say that the Bier Stein Bottleshop & Pub in Eugene is one of my new favorite places to have a beer. The concept here is one that we rarely see, due to expense, insurance issues, or more likely, local and state regulations. The Bier Stein is a package store that also offers patrons a place to stay and drink their recently purchased bottles. If you take away the beer, you get 15% off your bill. If you stay, you’ll be drinking a huge range of craft beers from around the world at substantially cheaper prices than what you would be paying in a bar. Want to try all of New Belgium’s lineup? $1.95 per bottle. How about Elysian’s Jasmine IPA in a 22 ounce bottle? $5.95. The beers are served in appropriate glassware and you can also select from ten or so well-priced draft beers. I’ve also seen the concept of a package store bar in Sonoma, California, at the Wine Exchange, which offers six or so draft beers as well as a much smaller number of chilled bottles. I love the concept and think it’s a great way to sample new beers at very friendly prices, especially in this price sensitive climate.

There were certainly a number of quintessential and memorable beer related moments during the trip, including the visit to the crazy Kennedy School, seeing Don Younger smoking and playing video poker at the Horse Brass, and drinking a number of excellent organic beers (including from the Hopworks in the company of local writer and photographer Matt Wiater of Portlandbeer.org and his girlfriend Becky). During the trip, we also spent some time with the employees of Full Sail in Hood River, the locals at Rogue in Newport, and at various places around Western Oregon. After some contemplation, I’m sure I’ll return to offer some more coherent thoughts on the trip.

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