Back in 2011, before it was the scourge of new-age diets, gluten was just an unknown protein in the public consciousness. But when an Australian researcher released findings that gluten may have been a cause of irritable bowel syndrome in test subjects who aren't naturally sensitive, gluten quickly became famous or infamous, depending on your culinary and intestinal preference. A warning was given: the findings weren’t final.
Still, gluten-free foods tracked by market research company Mintel jumped to nearly $1.5 billion in sales that year. They grew to about $10.5 billion in 2013, when that same researcher released his follow-up findings that it wasn't gluten that had caused trouble in the initial test, but a different short-chain carbohydrate. No matter.
Sales of gluten-free food have continued to climb, lifted by increased accounts of celiac disease, despite the fact that just under 1% of the U.S. population lives with the autoimmune disorder affected by gluten. Many still choose to go gluten-free, which has potential benefits and risks unto itself, depending on which corner of the self-diagnosing internet you click.
It’s been a different story when it comes to beer, which contains gluten when made with malted barley or wheat. As sales of gluten-free food has steadily risen, gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer sales are falling in recent years.
According to IRI data, the nascent days of beer with various levels of gluten (reduced or none at all) picked up considerable steam from 2012 to 2015, which saw numerous new entrants and particularly strong push from Omission, Craft Brew Alliance’s line of gluten-removed brands. Over that three-year period, sales of the Omission family of beers went from just under $800,000 to $9.4 million in annual sales in IRI-tracked MULC stores, including grocery, convenience, and more. In 2016 and 2017, that total fell to about $8.5 million. The brands accrued $2.6 million through the first four months of 2018.
(A quick aside about terminology: Gluten-free beer is made with a recipe that does not include ingredients that include any gluten, including things like sorghum or buckwheat. Gluten-reduced or -removed beer can be made with ingredients that contain gluten, but is then removed during the brewing process.)
But Omission isn’t the only product that’s dropped or gone flat. Most top-selling brands have seen precipitous falls in dollar sales. Redbridge, a product of Anheuser-Busch InBev, lost 30% in dollar sales over the 2015-2017 time period. Nevertheless, it still compiled $4.6 million last year in IRI MULC stores, about the same as the entire Anderson Valley Brewing Co. family of brands in those channels. Lakefront New Grist, which hit an IRI-high $759,130 in 2015, sold about $590,000 last year—a drop of 22%.
But all hope isn’t lost for gluten-affected beer producers. Health-conscious drinkers have become a great interest in beer, spirits, and wine, and when “gluten-free” can be found plastered on consumer goods from shampoo to peanuts to vodka, it would seem some semblance of a market will stick around for beer.
Essentially one brand has kept the entire category growing, albeit slower, in IRI stores: Stone Brewing Delicious IPA, a gluten-reduced, hop-forward beer. Since debuting in 2015, it's become a near-$10 million brand, putting it on par with beers like Ninkasi Total Domination IPA and Sierra Nevada Tropical Torpedo IPA in IRI dollar sales. It turns out the best-selling gluten-reduced beer is actually just a well-liked beer for any kind of consumer, not only those suffering from celiac disease.
Jeremy Moynier, Stone's senior innovation brewing manager, credits the beer's success to a modern hop combination of Calypso, Lemondrop, and El Dorado, with heavy use of the latter in dry-hopping. Its character aligns with what drinkers are looking for these days, and having friends sensitive to gluten offered inspiration to focus a process to remove the protein so "they could also enjoy a great, unique IPA," he says.
"Years later, the beer stands alone as an exceptional IPA," he adds, "but also meets the needs of those sensitive to gluten, and that’s a pretty cool offering.”
As one might expect in this era of craft beer, if a brewery is going to make a beer tailored for those mindful of gluten intake, hoppy is the way to go. Of 10 lead gluten-free or -reduced beer brands making $100,000 or more in IRI stores, half are hop-forward: Stone Delicious IPA, Omission Pale Ale, Omission IPA, New Belgium Glutiny Pale Ale, and Ground Breaker Brewing's IPA.
But what does it take to succeed with a niche business plan, let alone product? In part two of this series, we’ll hear from industry pros on the challenges and benefits of going gluten-free.