When people think of allergies, they often think of chocolate, grass, animal dander and sometimes milk.
But at least they can still enjoy a nice, cold beer at the end of day.
This isn’t so for people with celiac disease, a health problem that requires the lifestyle known as “gluten-free.” The disease damages the small intestine, as well as creating difficulty in absorbing nutrients. Gluten — a protein found in wheat, rye and barley — generates an abnormal immune response. The body will attack tiny little bumps lining the small intestine, called villi, which usually absorb the nutrients. If left untreated, people become significantly malnourished, even with a bountiful feast spread before them.
At its essence, beer is comprised of four core ingredients: water, hops, yeast and barley. Yet for individuals with celiac, that last ingredient can cause them to experience stomach spasms, fatigue, depression or even lead to infertility.
Brewers have realized this untapped market and taken up the challenge of perfecting new varieties of beer, using various grains or grasses such as rice or buckwheat. In 2007, the Great American Beer Festival officially added a gluten-free category. Last year, 20 entrants competed, with Rock Bottom Arlington and Strange Brewing Company tying for first place.
Gluten-free beer is generally made using one of two methods. The first — a complete avoidance of gluten grains — often creates a different flavor from regular beers, as companies experiment with fruit or sorghum to generate new flavors for the beer.
The other way is to create beer normally and then extract the gluten. While those with particularly sensitive cases of celiac typically avoid this type, international standards have deemed it acceptable. Unfortunately, an individual will only know which type a beer is if the brewery publishes its results.
Until recently, alcohol innovators had been frustrated by legal problems surrounding gluten-free beer. Gluten-free beers didn’t fit under the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935’s definition of beer as a beverage brewed from malted barley and other grains.
The FAA Act required the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau “to ensure that a product’s label adequately inform[ed] consumers about the nature of the product and that the label information [was] truthful, accurate and not misleading.” Problems arose when the Food and Drug Administration noted that there was no scientific method to substantiate gluten-free foods. On July 7, 2008, the TTB decided to let the FDA maintain regulation of whether a given beer is in fact gluten-free.
An “interim” ruling was announced in May 2012, stating that the TTB will “not allow products made from ingredients that contain gluten to be labeled as ‘gluten-free.’” So even for those brewers who use the method of extracting the gluten from their beer, any beer made with barley or rye couldn’t have a gluten-free label, even if the content was below the World Health Organization’s recommended 20 parts per million. The TTB’s ruling mainly resulted from a lack of a definition regarding gluten-free beers.
Breweries persist, even with the confusion from the TTB and FDA. One new company, the Aurochs Brewing Company, exists outside downtown Pittsburgh. Ryan Bove, a recently diagnosed celiac, teamed up with childhood friend Doug Foster, who’d been diagnosed with the disease at age 6, to start the company in 2012. Four other men joined the team to help with finances and the crafting of the taste.
“I had been helping Ryan go gluten-free, and one day we were commiserating over the lack of variety in gluten-free beer. It was tough for Ryan because he had loved and lost. He had enjoyed a wide variety of great craft beers before his diagnosis. I had always been limited and wanted to find out what all the craft beer buzz was about,” Foster said.
The group follows the theory of starting with no gluten materials. They had made the decision before the TTB and FDA ruling, Foster said.
“‘Gluten-removed’ or ‘gluten-reduced’ beers might be safe for someone who chooses to eat gluten-free, but there may be a risk for those with celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder) or a severe gluten intolerance,” he said.
As Foster and Bove soon realized, gluten-free beer was not the most palatable. Others shared their opinion.
“Most of the gluten-free beer I’d had before was pretty awful,” said Rebecca Lebens, a Pitt junior who is gluten-intolerant.
Aurochs’ brewers agreed, noting their continued learning and troubleshooting.
“Some of the biggest issues with brewing gluten-free beer involve sourcing quality gluten-free ingredients, extracting enough sugar from our malted grains and managing a longer brew process.”
While Aurochs is working hard, it’s not necessarily getting to the public.
“Although gluten-free food is getting significantly better and more common, some bartenders don’t know of any good beers, or even have them,” Lebens said.
Allison Patton, a local Pittsburgher, was hopeful about new breweries moving in.
“Having a nearby brewery could get other bars to start picking up gluten-free products, making it easier to find drinks,” Patton said.
Aurochs, which is “anxiously anticipating a launch in the coming months,” will initially sell just growlers — take-out jugs of beer straight from the tap. The owners are hopeful that their product will soon spread to bars and restaurants.