About five years ago, Alan Newman had an idea. After helping to create Magic Hat, build Boston Beer’s Alchemy & Science network of brands, and launch other non-beer businesses, gluten-free beer caught his eye.
“I was exploring all opportunities, and [Craft Brew Alliance] had put out a gluten-free beer that was getting decent distribution,” he says. “It struck me that if there was interest in having more than one product in the category, it would probably be additive, not just taking business from them.”
But the more he considered it, the more it didn’t seem like a long-term option. Brands appeared off-premise in grocery and big box stores, but rarely had a place at bars and restaurants. As seen in part one of this series, he wasn’t wrong. On-premise dollar sales for key brands grew steadily from 2012 to 2015, but have come back down to earth since. For someone who’s helped bring a variety of businesses to life, Newman figured the future of the category was easy to see.
To make it really worthwhile, Newman believed a brand would have to launch with national distribution due to limited demand, a way to use volume to balance costs. But even then, difficulties could arise due to distribution and keeping beers fresh on shelves.
“Not every concept will translate into all categories, and I don’t think there are enough people out there that want gluten-free and are beer drinkers,” Newman says. “Put the two together and even then, it’s hard to find a gluten-free beer they like to drink.”
Ultimately, he passed on the idea. Going the hoppy route in the age of IPA is one way to mitigate the risk Newman saw, but another is to do the opposite of what he suggested. Instead of national, take a clue from the industry at-large: focus on local.
An estimated 90% of the beer made at Lafayette, Colorado’s Odd13 Brewing Inc. is some version of IPA, DIPA, or Pale Ale. And unless you asked, you wouldn’t know that they’re all also gluten-reduced, including less than 10 parts per million of the protein—an acceptable range for many celiac sufferers or those sensitive to gluten. Odd13, like others, uses Clarity Ferm, an enzyme that is commonly used to reduce chill haze but can also double as a means to reduce gluten.
“We only talk about it when it’s specifically relevant,” says Ryan Scott, co-founder of Odd13. “We don’t label cans with ‘gluten removed,’ although we don’t hide it on the website. We’re not trying to capture the gluten-free market, we want our beer to be great beer first, not a great gluten-free beer.”
Odd13 started making gluten-reduced beers in 2015 not for commercial purposes, but because Scott’s wife and co-founder, Kristen, was diagnosed with an intolerance to the protein.
“It wasn’t part of some grand plan to capture a corner of the market,” Scott says. “My wife wanted to drink our beer and we noticed no flavor impact as a result of using Clarity Ferm.”
Scott says he doesn’t want an immediate perception of his beer to be lumped in with what he sees as a negative, or at least lackluster, perception of gluten-impacted beers. He says "gluten-free" can be a negative connotation, making drinkers think about unknown ingredients (sorgum or buckwheat) leading to different, unwanted flavors. So while Odd13 embraces the fact its beers offer something different, explicit statements about the beer are cordoned off to a single page on its website.
Other brewers have taken similar approaches (Cincinnati’s MadTree Brewing only notes reduced gluten among FAQs) or fully embraced the novelty. After releasing some gluten-reduced beers as taproom-only offerings last year, Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing started its own year-round, gluten-reduced IPA series, which even includes lab reports on the beer’s website.
But with the exception of a small collection of SKUs, specific advertising can be rare when it comes to the novelty of gluten-free or -reduced beer.
“We want people seeking us out for our IPAs because of what they are—the style, the hopping rates, those sorts of things,” Scott says. “Rather than because they’re gluten-removed.”
At the moment, it seems businesses are destined to play out some version of Newman’s prediction, combined with the reality of locality that pervades today’s industry. For examples such as widely-released New Planet Beer, a gluten-free and -removed brewery that saw IRI MULC sales go from a peak of almost $500,000 in 2013 to $22,000 last year, there are community success stories that showcase their gluten-free commitment as a big part of their business plan. At Portland, Oregon’s Ground Breaker Brewing, a 100% gluten-free brewpub went from about $50,000 in IRI sales to almost $250,000 in the same timespan. The company also plays host for the city’s Zero Tolerance Gluten Free Homebrew Club.
Gluten-free beer is presenting both challenges and success for beer makers. When it comes to drinkers, the experience can be similarly frustrating. In the final part of this series, we’ll hear from a recently-diagnosed gluten-intolerant beer lover who has been forced to rethink his passion.
Gut Reaction, Pt. 1 — Is Anyone Buying Gluten-Free Beer?
Gut Reaction, Pt. 2 — A Gluten-Reduced Opportunity
Gut Reaction, Pt. 3 — A Love for Beer, a Life Without Gluten