by Sally Colby
Consumers who choose gluten-free products for health or other reasons have some good options when it comes to shopping for food and beverage products, but not when it comes to beer.
Karen Hertz, owner and manager of Holidaily Brewing in Golden, CO says that her brewery is one of five commercial-size, dedicated gluten-free breweries in the U.S., and the first in Colorado. After dealing with several autoimmune issues, Karen found that she felt significantly better after eliminating gluten from her diet.
Karen explains why she believes there’s a need for gluten-free beer. “In 2015, cider was a billion-dollar market,” she said. “We know people are drinking gluten-free, beer-similar products.” Karen added that many gluten-free consumers would choose a gluten-free craft beer over cider, but their only choice is cider because it most closely ties to the beer experience.
“Gluten free brings you customers,” said Karen, noting that gluten-free consumers are very influential on their social group. “If I’m the high-maintenance, gluten-free wine or food allergy person, I get to decide where we’re going to go for dinner or drinks. If you have a gluten-free option, I can bring that whole crowd with me. At our brewery, we often get a birthday party because the man or woman is celiac or gluten-free and they bring 10 or 20 people with them. We get that whole group’s business because we have gluten free offerings.”
The designations for gluten-free beer can be somewhat confusing, but there are three main categories. Gluten-reduced beer is made with barley, wheat or rye, and at the end of the process, Brewer’s Clarex ® or Clarity Ferm is added. “That breaks the gluten protein into small pieces,” Karen explained. “The beer tests less than 20 ppm at the end of the process, but it cannot be labeled gluten-free. Instead, it’s labeled something like ‘crafted to reduce gluten’.” It’s important to note that gluten-sensitive and celiac consumers may still have a reaction to gluten-reduced beers.
Gluten-free beer is made with gluten-free ingredients such as syrups, certain grains or a naturally gluten-free ingredient like sweet potatoes. The final product must test below 20 ppm and can be labeled gluten-free because all the ingredients going in are gluten-free. The only issue with these products is potential cross-contamination if it’s produced using the same equipment as traditional beer.
Dedicated gluten-free beer is made in a facility that makes only gluten-free beer. “Every ingredient in these breweries is gluten-free,” said Karen. “Every beer has to test 20 ppm or less, can be labeled gluten-free and we’ve eliminated the risk of cross-contamination.”
Bringing gluten-free beer to the market requires an understanding of who regulates what. “Gluten-free beer is regulated by the FDA, not the TTB,” said Karen. “The FDA rule, in general, is that ‘you must meet the requirements of the gluten-free labeling final rule prior to fermentation or hydrolysis.’ What that means is that every ingredient that goes in needs to be gluten-free so that everything that comes out is gluten-free. The easiest way to achieve that is to test every ingredient going in. Then you must also adequately measure cross-contamination risks. If your brewer is brewing with a croissant over the boiler kettle, you’ve got yourself a contamination risk.” Karen added that risks need to be identified throughout the entire handling process, from grain to cleaning the system, and there should be a process by which risks can be identified and remedied.
The presence and level of gluten in products can be determined by an ELISA test (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay). Two versions of the ELISA test are available, sandwich and competitive. The competitive ELISA is more sensitive and is approved by the ASBC (American Society of Brewing Chemists) to test for gluten levels.
For those who brew gluten-free beer, Karen recommends certification by the GFCO (Gluten-Free Certification Organization) because it covers all the bases. GFCO certification requires a stricter threshold of 10 ppm rather than 20 ppm. “They will help you make sure you’re making a safe product,” she said. “As a consumer, I look for products with that icon because I know those companies are committed to making gluten-free products.”
Gluten-reduced beer is regulated by the TTB for labeling and advertising. Cans can be labeled “crafted to reduce (or remove) gluten” but in addition, brewers must send a sample of the product to the TTB and must have the formula approved for every beer put out as gluten-reduced. In addition, the TTB requires a specific statement on advertising or labeling. “What the statement basically says is that this product has been made with gluten-containing ingredients and we cannot guarantee that they are gone,” said Karen. The TTB application must include the method used to reduce or remove gluten, and the 20 ppm threshold test must be the competitive ELISA test (rather than the sandwich ELISA test).
Karen says that there’s a lot to consider when it comes to serving gluten-free beer and cross contamination is the major issue. “It seems like a little bit here and there shouldn’t be such a big deal, but these people can really get sick,” she said, adding that the concern and care should be that of the level of peanut allergies. “We get crazy stories in the brewery of sensitive consumers. Making sure everyone is aware of cross-contamination and that you can’t mess around with it is really important.”
Another consideration is that if a taproom kicks a traditional keg and then taps it to a gluten-free keg or gluten-reduced keg, that keg or the beer through the lines has been contaminated. “If you’re going to have it (gluten-free or reduced beer) on tap, you need to dedicate a line to gluten-free beer so there’s no confusion and you’re giving what you say to the customer,” said Karen. “Another important thing is that one person may order gluten-free beer and another at the same table might order traditional and are served the wrong one.”
To help ensure customers get what they want, Karen makes an effort to visit with the entire staff when she visits wholesale accounts to make sure everyone is aware of the various designations of gluten-free beers. She suggests that servers take the can to the table and pour the beer in front of the consumer so there’s no question they’re getting a gluten-free beer. “That’s part of training staff,” she said. “Emphasizing the importance of getting it right for the gluten-free consumers is really important. Don’t just take the time and effort to make a gluten-reduced option then blow it by serving the wrong beer to someone. Make sure the right product gets to the right person.”