Brewing Controversy: The Progress with Today’s Gluten-Free Beer and the Problems with Current Labeling Laws

By Amy Copperman

SEVEN YEARS AGO, DANE BREIMHORST WAS ABOUT TO FULFILL HIS LIFELONG DREAM OF OPENING A CRAFT BREWERY when he was diagnosed with celiac disease. Forced to put the project on hold, the Minnesota home brewer and professionally trained chef turned to his newly GF pantry to homebrew what he couldn’t readily find in stores—an ale that tasted as good as what he used to drink but wouldn’t make him sick. Today, he and his brewing partner, Thom Foss, make a crisp pale ale, a creamy coffee stout, a hoppy IPA, and six other craft beers under the Burning Brothers Brewing label in a zero-tolerance gluten-free facility where even tasting-room visitors aren’t allowed to bring in lunches that aren’t certified gluten-free.

His is a familiar story. In the GF beer world and the broader celiac community, there’s a creative, bootstrapped approach to drinking well, especially since the proliferation of brewing kits has enabled a generation of home brewers. From ales made with alternative grains to traditional beers treated with a gluten-reducing enzyme, you needn’t look further than page 10 in GFF Magazine’s spring issue to see that there are more gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer options than ever before. But this burgeoning market has also brewed up a big batch of regulatory gray areas and labeling confusion that make it tricky for celiacs to determine what’s truly safe to drink.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dictates, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) agrees, that a product can be labeled gluten-free only if it’s made from one of two types of ingredients: those that are naturally gluten-free or those that have been processed to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

This is an easy guideline for ales made from grains that don’t contain gluten to begin with. But that’s not the case for “gluten-reduced” beers, which are becoming bountiful in the marketplace. Crafted from traditional (glutenous) grains and treated with a gluten-reducing enzyme, they can’t claim GF status for two reasons: they’re made from ingredients containing gluten, and there is no scientifically validated method for accurately testing gluten levels in fermented beverages (which means there’s no way to ensure that even the most rigorously treated and tested gluten-reduced beer is truly safe for celiac consumers).

Further confusing matters, the TTB’s beer regulations were written long before anyone thought of making brews from nontraditional ingredients, so the beer the TTB regulates refers specifically to fermented beverages made with barley and hops. Brews made without hops or from any other grain (such as sorghum, rice, or wheat) fall outside of the TTB’s definition and labeling governance— instead they are overseen by the FDA. This would be fine if the TTB and the FDA followed the same labeling guidelines. But they don’t.

The FDA’s aforementioned rules around GF labeling are clear and concise, allowing consumers with celiac disease to make safe buying decisions. A side bonus is that FDA-regulated labels require an ingredients list. Check any beer made from non-gluten ingredients, and you’ll get a crystal-clear idea of what you’re drinking. This is not the case with barley-based brews. The TTB doesn’t have a similar requirement, so everyday beers can, and often do, include a variety of undisclosed ingredients, such as corn syrup, rice syrup, or artificial coloring.

Although the TTB follows the FDA’s lead about what constitutes a “gluten-free” product, it faces the additional hurdle of regulating a new product, gluten-reduced beer, which cannot be accurately tested for gluten content. As it waits for final FDA rulings on the gluten-free labeling of fermented products, the TTB’s “interim policy” is to allow gluten-reduced beer labels to feature a statement that they were “crafted,” “processed,” or “treated” to remove gluten with the following warning: “The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.”

Jennifer Iscol, president of the Celiac Community Foundation of Northern California, points out why this is problematic: “The federal government’s on-the-fly approach to regulating gluten-reduced beer has not achieved two of the primary goals of all regulation: protecting consumers and creating an even playing field for manufacturers. The situation places an unreasonable burden on retailers and consumers to understand the science and tune out misleading advertising and unvalidated test results for gluten levels.”

Her concern is warranted: While there are plenty of gluten-reduced success stories, such as that of the celiac wife of the head brewer of San Francisco’s Old Bus Tavern who happily enjoys her husband’s gluten-reduced American and Belgian-style ales, you need look only to the Facebook group “We Got Sick Drinking GlutenReduced Beer” to find contrary experiences.

As a result, Iscol and Tricia Thompson, the registered dietitian behind Gluten-Free Watchdog, recommend anyone with celiac disease avoid gluten-reduced beers until gluten-level testing can be validated and accepted by the TTB.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid gluten-reduced beer if you’re not celiac and don’t have a reaction to it; there’s a growing number of delicious gluten-reduced options on the market for people pursuing a gluten-free lifestyle by choice.

It also doesn’t mean that people on a strict gluten-free diet are relegated to the inoffensive but somewhat simple macrobrew-style of Redbridge, Anheuser-Busch’s GF brand; today’s gluten-free brewers are getting more creative and sophisticated in making malted beverages that approximate craft beer’s variety, hoppy and malty flavors, and round texture. Bard’s Tale Beer Company, one of the bigger, nationally distributed players (which begins its exhaustive cross-contamination testing process at the farm, long before grain even hits its GF facilities), malts (aka roasts) its sorghum to produce the toasty, round flavors that are otherwise unachievable. Burning Brothers plays with fermentation time to thicken up its sorghum-based ales and stresses the yeast to produce a buttery finish and temper some of the grain’s natural sweetness. Other brewers are turning to an array of base ingredients, from organic cornflakes to lentils to walnuts to chestnuts.

As has always been the case with the market, where there’s a demand, there will always be a supply. Thankfully, we can now drink to that.

Photography Erin Ng

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