The rise of gluten free beer
The market for gluten free beers is on the increase. This is partly due to new brewing processes and the growing demand from the general public.
As Sue Cane, gluten-free beer expert, says “I ran my first gluten free beer tasting in 2009 at River Cottage Canteen when I was desperate to find something to drink that even resembled beer. Since then, the market has changed dramatically and there are now many outstanding quality, gluten free beers around.”
Traditionally, there was only one way of making gluten free beer and that was by replacing wheat and barley with gluten free materials such as sorghum, buckwheat, rice or millet. Green’s Beers was the first company in Europe to produce beer in this way in 2003.
A new brewing method has been introduced, popular among smaller and craft breweries, where beer is made from barley and treated with a special enzyme such as Brewers Clarex, which prevents chill haze in beer. (Brewers are keen to get rid of as this makes beer cloudy.) The enzyme’s active ingredient, Proline Specific Endo-protease, breaks down the gluten in malted barley. The resulting beer tests below the currently accepted gluten free standards of less than 20 parts per million. As a result of this new brewing process, there’s been a rise in the number of beers on the market, also called “gluten removed” or “deglutenised”.
Sue Cane explains “One of the side effects of using the enzyme is that it makes the beer test gluten-free. This is a contentious point. Some people claim the beer's still toxic and that the tests simply can’t identify the gluten as it’s been broken up so much. For example, if gluten is a rugby ball but it’s been broken up into tennis balls during the brewing process, the test won’t identify it as it’s looking for rugby balls. If you're coeliac it's not safe to simply rely on the absence of symptoms as a guide to the safety of food and drink and certainly not a good idea to chance it and drink beer that hasn't been declared gluten free. Even with beer that is declared gluten free, moderation is the key as a few bottles can take you dangerously near the limit that is deemed a safe daily maximum.”
There is a great deal of controversy about this as gluten sensitivity varies among people and researchers aren’t certain whether these small pieces of the gluten protein can still cause a reaction.
Jon Kyme from Stringers Beer www.stringersbeer.co.uk believes the new brewing process is genuinely innovative technology. “Beers treated with the appropriate enzyme are ‘testing as gluten free’ because that’s what they ‘effectively’ are. There’s no trickery involved here. To say anything else is to misunderstand the science. The problem isn’t with gluten per se (that’s just a name for a group of proteins in wheat and related grains), but with a particular string of amino acids which are part of the make-up of those proteins. This ‘epitope’ is responsible for triggering the harmful inflammatory response. The immunological tests used to measure gluten in foodstuffs recognise this epitope – so we can be confident that a food testing as gluten free must have a very small potential for causing harm.”
David Ware from Greens Beers www.glutenfreebeers.co.uk says he hasn’t come across the controversy surrounding “deglutenised” beer. “We haven’t had any specific feedback on this issue,” he says. “I believe consumers will make their own choices as to which style of gluten free beer they choose. The gluten free beer category is growing in the number of brands available and the “lifestyle free from” consumer may take less notice of how it is made whereas those who are gluten intolerant will be more selective and choose a safer option. Therefore the category will ‘split’ between naturally gluten free beers and deglutenised beers.”
Kyme feels that this controversy is nothing more than FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) “and serves only those investing in alternative ingredient beer-like beverages. The enzyme-based processes have shaken up the industry and allow folks with gluten intolerance a much wider choice of beverages now including genuine beer. It lowers the bar for new entrants to the sector and this is bound to provoke hostility from those who imagined they had the market to themselves. I hope that all the new producers take their responsibilities seriously and make sure they have the necessary quality assurance procedures in place to protect their customers. This will, as a minimum, include per batch testing by reputable third parties.”
Meanwhile, some people report that they are fine drinking deglutenised beer, while others say they aren’t and some just don’t want to take the risk. As David Ware from Greens says “It’s a muddy area - maybe if the waters get too muddied, the regulators may adopt the North American beer labelling system whereby any beer defined as gluten free must be made from gluten free raw materials. Any other beer which is less than 20ppm may call itself “suitable for coeliacs”. My guess is that it may well come down to this.”