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Is your favorite gluten-free beer really gluten-free?

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Earlier this month, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) released a new report regarding its stance on gluten-free products. Why should you care? Gluten-free beer, that’s why.

Like pretty much every other food industry that deals with gluten-producing ingredients (barley, wheat and rye), a small segment of the craft beer industry is targeting consumers that suffer from gluten-intolerant celiac disease, as well as health-conscious folks chasing a new trend in eating.

As for beer, an increasing selection of exceptional options that purport to be gluten-free (including one of our Top 25 Beers of 2013), are filling the shelves. But the TTB, which approves all language/graphics on beer labels, is making sure it separates the gluten-free from, what it see as, “gluten-free.”

Here’s what the TTB stated in its latest report:

“The new FDA regulations disqualify foods from bearing a ‘gluten-free’ claim if they contain an ingredient that is a gluten-containing grain, such as wheat, rye, barley, or a cross-bred hybrid of those grains. This prohibition applies regardless of the gluten content of the finished product. Thus, consistent with FDA’s regulations, TTB will continue to consider ‘gluten-free’ label claims for TTB-regulated alcohol beverages made from gluten-containing grains to be misleading.”

What does this have to do with gluten-free beer?

There are a couple of examples of popular “gluten-free” beer that actually use gluten-producing grains—Omission Beer and Brasserie Brunehaut’s line of Bio beers, both readily available across the States. Both employ methods to reduce the level of gluten in the final product to FDA-approved standards (how? I’m not entirely sure—science, I guess).

Now this isn’t a case of pulling the wool over the consumer’s eyes. Omission Beer—a product of the Craft Brew Alliance—has been completely upfront about the status of its products. From the website:

“Each batch of Omission Pale Ale and Omission Lager is tested by an independent lab using the R5 Competitive ELISA for gluten content. Although there is scientific evidence supporting this testing, the evidence is not conclusive. Omission beer may contain gluten.” tweet

Thus, the brand hasn’t been able to write “gluten-free” on its label (although due to regulations it can use the term internationally). During the FDA’s re-examination of the gluten-free definition last fall, it looked like Omission might be brought into the fold, but this new TTB report puts that future possibility in serious doubt.

Still, Omission has the backing of at least one organization. Late last year, the Celiac Spruce Association, the largest non-profit celiac support group in the country, recognized Omission Beer as risk-free for celiacs. “We take very seriously our mission of ‘celiacs helping celiacs.’ Omission Beer clearly meets our strict standards as a risk-free choice for celiacs,” Mary Schluckebier, Celiac Spruce Association executive director, said in a press release.

What grains do certified gluten-free beers use?

A whole range of non-traditional grains and nuts are used in certified gluten-free beer. Harvester Brewing out of Portland, Ore., employs chestnuts, oats and sorghum. Canadian Brasseurs Sans Gluten brews its Glutenberg line with ingredients like millet, buckwheat, quinoa and chestnuts. These brands, among others (see third graph) are officially gluten-free.

What does this mean for the consumer?

After reading all of this, here’s the thing: Nothing has changed. The Craft Brew Alliance will probably continue to lobby (along with other similar products), and hold out hope that the FDA and TTB will award Omission official status. The science behind removing gluten will probably be studied further. You’ll still stand in the beer aisle and wonder which gluten-free or “gluten-free” beer will pair best with dinner tonight.

The real question:

Does the the FDA or TTB’s stance have any influence on which gluten-free or “gluten-free” beer you buy at the store?

 

Author
Chris Staten is DRAFT’s beer editor. Follow him on Twitter at @DRAFTbeereditor and email him at chris.staten@draftmag.com.

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2 Comments

  • Ed says:

    Gluten is protein so enzymes that break down protein can be used to produce gluten free beers.

  • Sarah says:

    But the incomplete breakdown could leave immunotoxic fragments in the beer that could explain all of the symptoms reported by celiacs. The test detects the full length protein and a few fragments. Not ALL of the immunotoxic fragments.

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