The range of emotions for a person who has just received a celiac diagnosis can vary widely, from sadness, shock, and confusion, to relief and hopefulness. But ultimately when the reality of the celiac treatment — a diet that is 100 percent free of gluten — is introduced, an inevitable feeling of loss can set in. And near the top of almost every celiac patient’s list of things they’ll miss the most are the twin holy grail of pizza and beer.
Fortunately with pizza, gluten-free recipes abound these days, and restaurant options have improved, too. But with beer, it’s more complicated, given that most people don’t make their own, and that malted barley – the roasted, gluten-filled grain – is at the heart of nearly every beer recipe on Earth.
Yet in the past 10 to 15 years, the walk-in coolers at grocery and liquor stores across North America have gradually added a few dozen gluten-free options, ranging from European imports such as Schnitzer Brau and Green’s to niche products like New Grist, and from big beer labels like Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge to “we-only-make-one-beer” operations such as Bard’s Tale.
During that time, the craft beer market took off in the United States. Many beer lovers, celiac patients included, enjoy a range of beer styles, from India pale ale and pilsners to stouts and porters. Until recently, though, the idea of a gluten-free craft brewery – one dedicated to making a range of those craft styles but in a 100 percent gluten-free facility – just hadn’t broken through. And that’s where the story of Portland, Oregon’s Ground Breaker Brewing and its founder, James Neumeister, begins.
“A good friend of ours was diagnosed with celiac in 2008, and I had never heard the word in my life,” recounts Neumeister, who also serves as Ground Breaker’s head brewer. “She started bringing over Redbridge and some of the other gluten-free lagers. But we’re a craft beer city, and yellow fizzy lager isn’t really what people are looking for here.” Neumeister, who had just started home-brewing, decided to take up the challenge. “I was kind of arrogant and I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make you something.” And it turned out to be very, very challenging.”
There was also a family connection to why Neumeister decided to start a gluten-free brewery in 2011. “After my first shots at making gluten-free beer as a home-brewer, I began reading about celiac disease,” he says. “The person I was making the beer for was concerned about cross-contamination, so I did a lot of research. But I also started to realize that this was a problem in my own family, on my wife’s side.”
Neumeister recalls the frustration he and his wife felt since they were having difficulty starting a family. His wife had had a rash for 30 years and asthma, too, and as Neumeister’s knowledge of autoimmune conditions grew, a challenge was eventually leveled. “Her line was: “If you can make a good gluten-free beer, I will go on a gluten-free diet.” So after I made one, and my wife went on the GF diet, she was almost immediately pregnant. And she stopped having the rash.” The couple now has two children.
Neumeister notes that while his wife hasn’t been tested for celiac because she refuses to eat gluten again, it was the diet and the gluten-free beer that spurred it – that changed their lives forever. “After five years, we thought, ‘it’s probably never going to happen,” he says. “So we were caught off-guard when my wife got pregnant.”
Dane Breimhorst, co-founder and head brewer at Burning Brothers Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota, was caught off-guard, too. In 2009, he and his business partner were in the late stages of planning a barley-based craft brewery. “We were out looking for equipment and a space for the brewery – we were ready to go,” recalls Breimhorst. “Right in the middle of it, I was diagnosed with celiac disease.”
Their business plan was out the window, along with recipes, training, and years of experience with barley-based brewing.
Breimhorst surveyed the landscape of gluten-free “pale, fizzy lagers” that Neumeister had first experienced, and initially resigned himself to a deprived state: “I thought, ‘OK, this is the rest of my life when it comes to beer.”
But being an avid home brewer, it wasn’t long before he started experimenting with making gluten-free beer on his own. “I found out the hard way that brewing gluten-free beer is insanely difficult, at least stuff that tastes good. It took me a couple of years to get the flavor profile to a sort-of formula.” Breimhorst says he basically had to teach himself how to brew beer again.
“When you brew gluten-free, yeast acts differently, and hops act differently, and there are a huge amount of variables,” he says. “I had to figure out how the different things work together and start writing recipes from there.” Breimhorst finally opened his brewery and brought his first gluten-free beer – an American pale ale called Pyro to store shelves in early 2014.
Back on the West Coast, Neumeister’s Ground Breaker (which was then called Harvester) got off to a modest start a few years before Burning Brothers, with just one product. “I wanted to make sure we knew how to transition from five gallons to 500 gallons,” Neumeister says.
Stopping at one style of gluten-free craft beer, however, was never the plan. “The entire point of starting this brewery was to offer variety,” said Neumeister. “The pale ale we make today is 100 times better than the first one we started with,” he says. “We never would have gotten there without a complete focus on gluten-free recipe development.”
Operating in a hotbed of beer tourism like Portland, Neumeister says he relishes the chance to change non-celiacs’ minds about gluten-free beer, but still doesn’t concern himself too much with the beer critic snobs who thumb their noses at anything not brewed with barley He’s in good company, too: The Oxford Companion to Beer, often called the “bible of beer,” not only has full entries for gluten-free fermentable grains such as millet and sorghum, it even includes this tidbit of trivia: “Sorghum is widely used in modern African industrial brewing Guinness stout, for instance, is made in Nigeria from a sorghum mash and malt extract.”
Even if purists don’t accept them, Breimhorst says that “some of the first beers in ancient Sumeria were made out of sorghum and millet.” Barley, he notes, mainly won out over time because it’s the easiest to grow, and for its high starch content.
Putting historical brewing debates aside, the practical concerns of brewing with alternative gluten-free grains are myriad. Julien Niquet, CEO of gluten-free brewer Glutenberg, based in Montreal, Canada, is blunt in his assessment. “Sorghum does not taste good. It gives a weird sweet/tart flavor to beer,” says Niquet, who lives with dermatitis herpetiformis, an autoimmune condition related to celiac disease and gluten consumption.
Niquet echoes both of his U.S. counterparts, when he notes that the process of figuring out a formula for gluten-free beer isn’t easy. Glutenberg’s flagship Blonde, was over a year in the making. “We like to get off the beaten track and experiment with new ingredients,” Niquet says of Glutenberg’s products, which now include an IPA, a blanche, a red (amber ale) and an American pale ale. “Our beers will never taste like barley beers, but it does not mean they won’t be better.”
For Ground Breaker’s Neumeister, being on the frontier means both challenges, but also having the chance to live up to his brewery’s name. “One thing I tell people is that there is 15,000 years of recipe development for beer made with barley and about eight years of recipe development for beer that is gluten-free.”
Burning Brothers’ Breimhorst, who used to work as a fire-eating performer, finds that having the chance to brag about how good his beer tastes is part of the fun and the challenge of brewing gluten-free. “I like to show off. Right now, I have a keg in my cooler of a Munich helles – and helles is one of the hardest beers to brew because it’s so delicate in flavor and light in color. It’s hard to hide any mistakes.”
And it’s that craft brewing DNA – the pursuit of excellence and variety in flavor and styles – fused at all three of these breweries with strict policies to keep gluten off their premises and out of their beer (at Ground Breaker and Glutenberg with certification and chemical analysis; at Burning Brothers with strict brewing policies), that ensures celiac craft beer drinkers can imbibe with confidence.
The bottom line, Breimhorst says, is that he knows his customers need him as much as he needed to start a brewery to be able to enjoy beer styles he loves. “There are so many people out there, who like me, who just don’t have a choice. It’s not a trend, it’s not a fad, and we believe it’s our responsibility, as people who know how to make this stuff, to get it to as many of them as possible. It has been a struggle, but man, it’s been worth it.”