Gluten-free beer might be a niched part of the market but it is a fast-growing one. Susanna Forbes looks at how and why you should get your offering up to speed.
It’s not often, as a drinks journalist, that you come across a deadly drinks category. Edgy, perhaps. Pioneering producers, sure. But actually life threatening? Not so much...
Yet that’s what conventionally brewed beer represents to coeliacs and others with serious gluten-related conditions. Once diagnosed, coeliac disease is a lifelong autoimmune condition. And with an estimated one in every 100 of the population affected, you might wonder why every pub or restaurant doesn’t offer a decent gluten-free beer range.
A study from Coeliac UK, the world’s largest and oldest coeliac society, indicated that the hospitality industry is missing out on £100m of business by not catering for this sector. After all, it’s often the coeliac in the group that decides the destination. And with 12% of new product launches in 2015 being gluten-free, Mintel studies predict that gluten-free food and drink will be worth £673m by 2020; the category grew 13% to £531m in 2016.
To be fair, until recently, there hasn’t been much choice on the beer front. No-one wants to list a beer just to tick a box. But the last few years have seen a huge increase in what’s available.
While the market expands for the pioneers – St Peter’s G-Free production has multiplied fivefold in the last five years for example – it is actually the new names that are the ones building momentum. The last 18 months has seen the appearance of two breweries focusing solely on gluten-free beer.
WHAT IS COELIAC DISEASE?
Triggered by gluten, a protein present in wheat, barley, rye and some oats, coeliac disease is where the body produces antibodies which attack the body’s own cells. Being an autoimmune condition rather than an allergy, even the smallest crumb can kick off the reaction – coeliacs talk of being ‘glutenned’ – with side-effects ranging from minor to major, the most extreme being bowel cancer. With no cure, the only solution for a coeliac is diet. The international threshold for food and drink to be described as ‘gluten-free’ is below 20 ppm. With zero room for error, gluten-free food and drink should be certified by a UK Accreditation Service. Breweries should test every batch of beer brewed.
The first, Bellfield in Edinburgh, has swiftly won success with its Bohemian Pilsner, picking up a Gold medal in the Free From awards. The second, Autumn Brewing in north-east England, only opened its doors as recently as February 2017.
There are essentially three routes to brewing gluten-free beer...
How to brew gluten-free beer
Different grain: Breweries like Greens use non-gluten alternatives, like sorghum – not an easy option, with its glutinous state – or buckwheat, while others might include maize or rice in the mix.
Modify the wort: Originally designed to clarify beer, the enzyme in Brewers’ Clarex also happens to break down gluten molecules. This is the discovery which kickstarted the gluten-free beer expansion. Robert Wick, founder of Westerham Brewery, spent several years perfecting the technique. Now, with customers including Harry Ramsden and Fishworks, his nine-strong gluten-free range is the fastest selling part of his business.
Special barley: Some barleys naturally have very low gluten levels. Chiltern Brewery found it already used one of these barleys, and Bellfield Brewery is trialling a new, low-gluten barley, Kebari, developed specially by CSIRO in Australia.
So, who’s selling it?
Well it’s not just wholefood health spas. Wetherspoon stocks gluten-free Estrella Galicia, and Mitchells & Butlers has recently put Greens IPA into over 300 of its pubs and restaurants. Pizza Express stocks Peroni Gluten Free alongside its gluten-free pizzas. On a smaller scale, Jonny Bright, our tasting host, carries three options, spanning the styles, through to Magic Rock’s punchy Fantasma.
Martin Hilton, director of Purecraft Bars, started exploring this area 18 months ago. ‘Initially we weren’t seeing what we wanted,’ he says. ‘Either the beers lacked body or substance, or they were too hop forward.’ Then he found Brú Lager. Recently introduced, this is already the fourth bestselling bottle out of their 50-strong range.
Meanwhile, the Pivovar group brews its own gluten-free beer, but also brings in Bernard’s Gluten Free Lager from the Czech Republic. ‘It sells really well,’ explains Sam Wheatley, general manager at the Pavement Vaults in York. ‘The demand is definitely growing – whatever we get in, sells.’
Six tips on getting gluten freed
Bone up on the gluten-free condition and its needs on the Coeliac UK site.
Explore what’s available. Look up the Free From awards, and call in samples from the tasting overleaf.
Confirm gluten-free credentials. Does the beer have Coeliac UK’s Crossed Grain symbol? Coeliacs rely on this. If not, see if gluten-free claims are backed up with UKAS tests. This is vital. There have been a small number of product recall cases, where beers have breached the 20ppm threshold.
Dedicate a specific line to gluten-free if you have a g-f beer on tap. Or adopt even more stringent cleaning procedures. Look up Coeliac UK Draught Beer guidelines
Shout about the beers. Add the gluten-free symbol to your menu and train staff.
Spread the word. Contact your local Coeliac UK branch. Consider getting yourself listed on the Coeliac UK App in its Venue Guide.