Gluten Free Beer - From A UK Brewer's Point Of View

Today's blog is by me Malcolm Shipp, owner of this site, managing director of Kennet & Avon Brewery and The Vaults pub in Devizes. We will soon have guest blogs here from some of our brewer suppliers!

So, 18 months ago there was next to no choice of decent beer available to those with Coeliac Disease or those choosing a gluten free diet. Having had one or two of the NGCI (Non Gluten Containing Ingredient) beers, I wasn't impressed and remember thinking how awful it would be for me, a lifelong beer lover to be diagnosed with CD.

Sure I can manage without beer, anybody can, but going to the pub or sitting on the terrace of some foreign restaurant whilst others consume would be upsetting to say the least, I love beer and all its different styles and complexities and it would be very difficult to put as much passion in my work without ever tasting the stuff!

So when chatting to a friend of mine in my own pub The Vaults and discovering she had CD and really missed a beer, I remembered how I thought myself and took on the challenge of getting some in for her to drink and feel 'normal' again. This was August or September 2014 and up until then I hadn't considered gluten free options in the pub apart from cider and wine which weren't bought in especially for CD sufferers. 

So, first stocks were the ones that have been out a while, Mongozo Pilsner, Celia, Daura and St Peter's Dark,  I wasn't a big fan of any of them personally but they were all a bit better than I had tried before so I looked for a few more and discovered Against The Grain by Wold Top which was a bit of a game changer as this actually tasted like ale I recognised, my friend thought so too and was so chuffed that we were now able to cater for her.

Then all of a sudden we found more and more people were asking for gluten free beer, people that were visiting the town plus regulars that had no idea there was this much choice and quality available and this was just the tip of the iceberg. Before long we had people tweeting about us and making suggestions for me beers to source. 

I decided to organise a Gluten Free & Vegan beer festival for November 2014, unfortunately at the time I couldn't find a beer that was both those things but it was good to be able to cater for these groups nonetheless. We managed to get 3 gluten free real ales on the pumps and 9 in bottle and had people visiting from all over the place, some regular drinkers happily drank these offerings too but there was quite a percentage that were put off by a beer that was gluten free and stuck to the 'normal' stuff, that is until we gave them a taste of Wold Top Scarborough Fair IPA 6%. 

Savernake StoutWhat I couldn't find though was a decent gluten free stout or porter so I had a lightbulb moment and began investigating how to brew one. I didn't know about this new process of removing gluten from beer made in the traditional way so looked at ingredients and came across no end of complications and restrictions that would make it virtually impossible and certainly not viable. Then I visited the world's biggest brewing trade show in Nuremberg and discovered the new method of removing (reducing) gluten from regular barley brewed beer during the process without losing even a fraction of the flavour!

In January 2015 we brewed a stout, followed the process, sent it off for testing and bingo, it came out back below 3ppm which is the lowest you can detect. Savernake "The Stout Without" was born and we launched it in cask on 30th January at The Vaults. We did 3 more brews in cask and each time got consistent results with gluten content so we were comfortable to commit to bottling, had the label design done, booked our slot at the bottlers and brewed a double batch and had it bottled in April this year. In July it won a bronze medal at the International Beer Challenge.

The Challenge For Brewers

Making gluten free beer has many complications for brewers from many points of view which often consumers don't fully understand so I hope I can clear up some confusion in this blog. Firstly, to make gluten free beer from completely NGCI is extremely complicated, a whole different process to normal brewing, expensive equipment and the result in most cases is a beer that people without any intolerance would not choose to drink over the beautiful craft beers of today so your market becomes very limited indeed and certainly in the UK the market isn't big enough unless you've got the budget of the big multi national brewers to market it and take a good chunk of the share like Daura for instance made by big Spanish brewers Estrella, then there's Brewdog and Celia, the latter of which is brewed by Carlsberg. The Bellfield Brewery in Scotland is a new outfit that is aiming to do it and I wish them luck but I wonder whether a NGCI beer will be any match for all the new brews available now with the gluten removed.

So there's the gluten removing process. If you're an established business with established beers that are doing well in the market, to suddenly announce they are gluten free is a very brave move and quite costly in terms of marketing. Brave because there's a good chance that a higher than necessary percentage of your loyal customers will be suddenly turning their noses up at your beer and their mind will tell them it tastes different without the gluten, that's if they bother to taste it at all. There's been many times I've recommended a superb beer in the pub only for the punter to turn it down once they've realised it's gluten free and many will make jokes about it being a 'fad' or pandering to those 'allergen types'. Yeah, it's going to take a while to lose that and that's why it makes the decision harder to go gf. Westerham Brewery have done it though, as have First Chop Brewing Arm and now we have certified our other 2 bottled beers as GF although the labels don't state it, we have several thousand bottles to get through first!

Several brewers including the aforementioned Brewdog have kept their established brands as they are and launched a GF beer as a separate new product and many would argue that's the wisest move, I believe Brewdog would lose much of their appeal to punks and cool people if they suddenly announced they were going totally GF and that wouldn't please their shareholders!

San Miguel have now launched a GF version of their lager but it hasn't arrived here yet. The biggest question we get asked is "What's the closest thing to Guinness that's gluten free", my inside answer is "thankfully nothing"  but what I actually say is "Try, Savernake, Wold Top Marmalade Porter, Westerham Double Stout or Ocho Reales Porter and you'll never look back".  Some folks think Guinness should make a gluten free version, it ain't gonna happen, they're part of Diageo, shares would plummet overnight and you'd have the massive problem of people being glutenised by accidentally consuming the non gf version. If Guinness ever bring out a gluten free beer that is remotely similar to the world's most popular and well known stout I really will eat my hat, and yours too!

But my question is, why on earth would you want these big organisations to bring out a gf beer?  Are you just blinded by marketing nonsense?  There are almost 100 good quality gluten free beers available in the UK from niche craft brewers who don't have an accountant on their back every day and these guys have taken a risk to brew superb craft beers just for you, there really is no comparison to quality, please support those brewers by buying direct from them if you're nearby or from any of the numerous bottle shops or online retailers like us.

I was going to say something about draught gluten free beers but that's a blog on it's own which I'll get around to soon!