Whether it’s because of an intolerance to gluten or a choice to follow a gluten-free diet, a small percentage of beer lovers are turning to gluten-free beers, and such beers are starting to show up more often in beer and liquor stores. Canadian breweries are taking up the challenge to brew good-tasting, gluten-free beers, but the country still doesn’t quite have the selection available to American beer drinkers.
One of the first gluten-free beers to appear in Canada was the La Messagère brands (three of them are now available –- the original, Red and Millet) from Microbrasserie Nouvelle France of Saint-Alexis-des-Mont, Quebec. La Messagère has been available in Quebec since 2003, and it has become more widely available through North America since. A more recent addition to the Canadian market is Nickel Brook Gluten-Free from Better Bitters Brewing (more often known as Nickel Brook). Also available (at least in Ontario) is New Grist from Lakefront Brewery of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
So what do all these beers have in common? Simple. They don’t contain gluten. They’re either brewed with malted grains that don’t contain traces of gluten, or they’re made with another fermentable sugar (like in the case of Nickel Brook Gluten-Free).
But are they beer? In that case, the answer is: It depends. According to Roger Mittag, founder of Thirst For Knowledge and the Prud’homme Beer Certification program and professor of beer in Humber College’s School of Hospitality, most gluten-free beers do fall into the category of beer because they contain malted grain. Although some purists may argue that they don’t contain barley or wheat, the generally-accepted definition of beer today includes the use of any malted grain that will yield the sugars needed for fermentation.
“They still can be malted. It’s just the style of grain that they’re using. That all leads together to: It is definitely beer,” Mittag said.
This doesn’t apply to all gluten-free alcoholic beverages, though. The dominant source of fermentable sugar in Nickel Brook Gluten-Free is pear juice, which makes it an alcoholic beverage but not a beer, Mittag said.
John Romano, president of Better Bitters Brewing (aka Nickel Brook), said it was about two years ago that one of his employees suggested the idea of gluten-free beer. Romano admitted he had no idea what gluten-free beer was at the time, but since Better Bitters isn’t afraid to experiment with beer styles, he began researching what was available and what the process to make it was. In short: He wasn’t impressed with the products on the market.
“These poor people that are gluten-free, and their choice is this beer. It’s crazy,” Romano said. Even though Romano noted that he doesn’t like to bad-mouth other craft breweries, he said the first gluten-free beer he tried was La Messagère, and he had hoped for more body and character than the beer had.
At the time, the only gluten-free beer in the LCBO in Ontario was La Messagère. Better Bitters set out to make a competing product, and after much experimentation, the Better Bitters team realized it couldn’t get the complexity it wanted from gluten-free grains. It turned to fruit. Romano said he makes pear wine, and so he started playing with pear as the base for his gluten-free beer.
“When you make pear wine, there’s not a lot there, so I started playing with pear and buckwheat and sorghum and Demerara sugar, and finally came up, after many, many trials … with the base that we have today. And it’s been reviewed very, very well,” Romano said.
However, Nickel Brook Gluten-Free is not classified as beer, even though you’ll find it resting beside beers on LCBO shelves throughout Ontario. The company is currently developing a second gluten-free beer.
The market for gluten-free beer is small, but it’s growing.
“Go back three years ago, we had one product. Now we have three,” said Leanne Rhee, category manager for beer and cider at the LCBO. “The variety available … could be bringing more people into the category.”
Although the number of people with celiac’s disease, which makes people intolerant to gluten, is only a small number throughout Canada, Rhee said many people are making healthier choices and cutting gluten from their diets. She said the LCBO gets requests from customers all the time for gluten-free products. In addition to the gluten-free beers currently available on LCBO shelves, the LCBO also has several other alcoholic beverages that cater to those with gluten intolerances, including cider, wine and spirits.
The gluten-free beers available are fairly light-bodied compared to most craft beers available, but they serve a growing market, Mittag said.
“I think there are massive opportunities in this category. If I [owned] a restaurant, I would make sure to have a gluten-free beer on my menu,” Mittag said.