The bookshelves at Tom Aguero's Cincinnati home hold about 80 titles. Works by Issac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and John Kerouac have a place. It wasn’t long ago that the number easily eclipsed 100. An additional 33 volumes once had space, all of them about beer—making it, drinking it, critiquing it. Over the past decade, they've been a part of his education and embrace of a beverage he loves dearly. He’s written about it, talked about it, tweeted about it. Those dozens of books are gone now, sold off to avoid physical reminders of a literal and figurative change.
"Craft beer really was my life," he says wistfully. "It still is, to a certain degree."
It's impossible to let go of something he's devoted a considerable amount of time to, but his grip has been forcibly loosened. This winter, he was diagnosed with celiac disease. After a second opinion offered the same result, he drank through his beer cellar with help of friends savoring tasters of Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, Cantillon Classic Gueuze, Jackie O's Mystic Mama, and Jester King Atrial Rubicite—“the last beer I had that I really cared about”—to send him off toward a life of cider and bourbon.
Despite years of obsessing over beer, there’s one kind of alcoholic beverage Aguero won’t be pursuing. "I don't believe gluten-free beer is beer," he says. "I don't think it should be called beer."
Since he changed his diet at the start of the year, Aguero has tried only a few gluten-impacted beers, none of which have stayed in his rotation of drinks. Cider has been a big winner—he’s been trying Angry Orchard brands and has found an affinity for Starcut Ciders, which is owned by Short's Brewing.
At a local brewery, he’s even had a cider named after him: FigLeaf Brewing Co’s Tom’s A. Quitter is a raspberry-lime cider that’s a favorite for Aguero and other customers. The cider started on half-barrel batches but sells well enough to warrant a 20 BBL test run.
He's also getting more into bourbon, which he enjoyed before, but is now worth additional attention, he says.
Amongst it all is a message of general disinterest that highlights the challenge of a niche market for gluten-free or -reduced beers, highlighted by Odd13 Brewing’s Ryan Scott in part two of this series. Early versions of these beers were seen as less-than, even as processes have become refined and newer, hop-forward beers offer flavors closer to craft beer’s favorite style.
“With all the hype of the gluten-free diet and more people pushing it, I don’t know why there aren’t better versions,” Aguero laments.
Between celiac disease and distaste toward his new dietary-friendly beers, Aguero is a rare case, to be sure. But he still represents one more beer buyer lost for a category that is continually trying to keep its fans, whether through attrition via wine and spirits or some other outside force. On a national scale, gluten-free or -reduced beers may not offer more than a blip on a brewery budget line, but there are still opportunities to be had, especially on a more local level.
Aguero's best friends came through homebrewing clubs or bottle shares and most of his social activities still revolve around beer in some way. He’s just not buying anymore.
“My friends still want to go out to breweries and I’m not going to fault them for that,” he says. “But most places in town, there’s nothing for me there.”
Such is the odd fate of gluten-free beer. It’s having trouble with sales on a national level, but there could be potential locally. It fits within a niche dietary restriction, but consumers on a whole are making more health-conscious purchases. There’s yet to be such an outstanding version of gluten-free or -reduced beer that the leading brand, Stone Brewing’s Delicious IPA, is likely to bridge all these gaps, appealing to drinkers no matter what their stomach sensitivities may be.
It’s a Schrödinger category. There, but not, with potential to be, but only maybe. You may never know unless you ask your beer buyer or bartender. “I don’t want to have some kind of beer just to say I had a beer,” Aguero says. “I want something I’m able to enjoy, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to actually try one. Maybe I’ll be in the mood eventually.”
If he does, it’ll be in a new location, with new options. Since beer can’t have a role in his life like it once did, Aguero will soon be moving to Atlanta to be closer to family. Getting rid of those 33 beer books has lightened his load, but he didn’t get rid of them all.
When he restocks his bookshelves in Georgia, Rick Armon’s Fifty Must-Try Craft Beers of Ohio will be the last one standing. The 2017 title rounds up a collection of beloved beers from the Buckeye State, and after being a part of Armon’s own journey in Ohio, Aguero even has an acknowledgment in the back.
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