The Politics Of Defining Gluten-Free Beer…

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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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