The Gluten Free Beer Revolution Continues…

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I’m happy to see that the gluten-free beer niche continues to grow. A recent trip to Minnesota revealed a friend who had long given up beer due to Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder whereby ingestion of certain proteins causes a painful and dangerous reaction in the body, which cannot absorb them properly.

While perusing beers at the excellent Blue Max Liquors in Burnsville, MN, I came across a number of gluten-free offerings. Upon seeing our purchase, the clerk offered that he had seen grown men in tears when purchasing the products, having so long been denied the opportunity to enjoy a beer.

redbridge.jpgThe niche within a niche of beers brewed without grain or wheat continues to gain positive press coverage and interest is growing among brewers. In order to help celiac sufferers, breweries continue to step up to the plate, including Anheuser-Busch.

In December 2006, A-B trumped smaller craft brewers by releasing the first nationally available sorghum-based beer. Called Redbridge and sold in stores and restaurants carrying organic products, the beer uses Hallertau and Cascade hops to balance the sorghum. A-B worked closely with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) to get a full understanding of the needs of celiac consumers. “We’ve made Redbridge nationally available to make sure adults who experience wheat allergies or who choose a gluten-free or wheat-free diet can enjoy the kind of beer that fits their lifestyle,” said product manager Angie Minges in a press release.

Redbridge pours with a light auburn color and has a slightly astringent if unremarkable aroma. Very different from the funky aromas often found in sorghum based beers. The flavor is more like regular beers than those I’ve sampled made from sorghum and buckwheat, which is a real plus for celiac sufferers. The flavor occasionally turns oddly cotton candy sweet at times, but quickly comes back into balance. The overall flavor is perhaps a little thin compared to malt-based beers, which seems to be common among all sorghum beers. While hard to compare against regular craft beers, it is certainly a great advance forward for beer lovers who cannot otherwise imbibe contemporary wheat and malt-based beers.

Before the release of Redbridge, the Bard’s Tale Beer Company produced the most popular gluten-free beer in America. Selling 6,000 barrels of beer a year, the Bard’s Tale Dragon Gold weighs in at 4.7-percent alcohol by volume. Two new people have recently taken over the operation of the beer marketing company. Brian Kovalchuk, the new CEO, and Brian Bizer, the new CFO, both have experience in marketing and distribution as part of the team that helped boost Pabst Blue Ribbon out of its recent bout with obscurity. The pair plan to move central operations to Minnesota, while Gordon Biersch contract brews the beer in Palo Alto, California. Their forecast for the brand is certainly optimistic, with announced plans to expand distribution from 19 states to 50 and targeted sales of 70,000 barrels by 2012. Similar to how Pabst achieved success, the pair hopes to build a word-of-mouth and ‘buzz’ marketing campaign to support the gluten-free offering.

Very few craft brewers have entered the gluten-free market to this point, and fewer still may want to compete now that Anheuser-Busch is in the game. With an estimated three million celiac sufferers in the United States, however, some daring craft brewers may see an untapped market for gluten-free beers and decide to tough it out. A glimmer of hope could be found at the First International Gluten-Free Beer Festival. Held in February 2006 in the United Kingdom, the festival featured 20 gluten-free and low-gluten beers from around the world. My favorite name: the Against the Grain Ale.

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