Glutenberg: Brewing Gluten-Free Beer in Quebec
Glutenberg, based in Montreal, Québec has a simple, yet formidable, mission: to make beer that’s not only good gluten-free beer, but good beer, period. “We present ourselves first as a craft brewery that produces gluten-free beer,” says head brewer Gabriel Charbonneau. “The first rule here is creating great beer first, that happens to be gluten free.”
This ambitious attitude, shared by co-founders David Cayer and Julien Niquet, drives the young brewery to experiment with new techniques, embrace and highlight gluten-free grains, and establish themselves, not just in the gluten-free category, but the craft beer market at large.
It’s also a distinction they feel they have to make because, for many years, gluten-free beer—much of it made with sorghum, which Charbonneau describes as “medicinal, harsh and sour”—wasn’t very good.
Niquet, who had entrepreneurial aspirations and a gluten intolerance, saw an opportunity and paired with Cayer, who he met at the Université du Québec à Montréal during their first week of studying for a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Neither had a background in beer or brewing, so they connected with Charbonneau via a Facebook post and found a hard-working brewer with technical skills and an ability to brew innovative beers. He came with a homebrewing background, a brewing education from Maska Laboratories in Québec and two years of professional experience at Montreal’s McAuslan Brewing.
“One thing I really liked when I met David and Julien, was the fact that it was so creative and original,” says Charbonneau. “Even when you see experimental beers in traditional brewing, it’s always made with a good part of traditional barley. In gluten-free beer there was basically no rules, and there was no idea how to do it. That was one really, really fun challenge that I was happy to try.”
Problem Solving Brewing
Developing a process for gluten-free brewing did prove to be a challenge—it took Charbonneau more than a year to perfect the first beer, a Blonde. They ruled out sorghum and experimented with other grains like tapioca and teff, a cereal used to make a spongy flatbread called injera in Ethiopia but didn’t consider a process in which an enzyme removes the gluten from a beer brewed with barley. Such a beer still contains trace amount of gluten, an issue for those with Celiac disease, and cannot legally be labeled gluten-free.
To produce a 100 percent gluten-free beer, they use a blend of gluten-free grains: corn, millet and buckwheat make up the base, while specialty grains like quinoa, black rice and roasted buckwheat and sugars including molasses, demerara sugar and candi syrup add color, body and flavor. The corn is ground to a grits-like texture, similar to what might be used in an American Light Lager, and none of the grains are malted. Charbonneau says they considered malting, but the risk of contamination was too high, and the cost was prohibitive. Instead, they finely crush the grain with a hammer mill to expose every starch and developed a breakthrough process that involves a very long mash—about 2.5 hours compared to around 60 minutes for a standard mash—when the grain is converted to fermentable sugars.
Lautering, or separating grain from the wort, was also a headache in the beginning because the fine grain would repeatedly cause stuck mashes (a grain of millet is about a tenth of the size of a barleycorn, for example), taking three or more hours every brew. They’ve since invested in a filter press machine that replaces the lautering tun.
Glutenberg launched with the Blonde in July 2011, followed by Pale Ale and Red five months later. In May 2012 they swept the gluten-free category at the World Beer Cup Awards in San Diego, with the Blonde, Pale Ale and Red taking bronze, silver and gold, respectively. It was a World Beer Cup first, and gave them the confidence and the credibility to start distributing more of their beer in the US and Europe; it also meant that they needed more volume. In September 2013, they scaled up their brewery from 3,000 to 22,000 square feet, and exchanged a seven-barrel brewhouse for a 35-barrel version.
At Glutenberg, designing a new beer requires a good deal of creative thinking. “We have to build the recipe differently,” says Charbonneau. “Usually a brewery would have a brainstorm, say, ‘OK we want to brew a beer,’ and decide on the kind of beer they want to achieve. Sometimes we work like this, but most of the time we look at the gluten-free ingredients and then we will build a recipe around it.’
Creativity and Competition
Charbonneau found a source of roasted chestnuts in Michigan, for example, and liked the nutty, biscuity taste in Red Ale. Alternative grains are also highlighted in special releases like Inca Cream Ale, which showcased blue corn and produced a pinkish-purplish hued beer. But he also acknowledges that they will never be able to brew some styles, especially those with a distinct malt character like English Bitter or Czech Pilsner.
They can achieve very dry beer though, and hoppy American styles are a strength. The IPA is becoming the new flagship, says Cayer, and their most popular beer after the Blonde.
Glutenberg’s creativity is perhaps best exhibited in its collaboration with François Chartier, author of Taste Buds and Molecules and a highly regarded sommelier known for his scientific work in aromatic harmonies. Under a line called Série Gastronomie, the partners develop dining-friendly beers with ingredients that share an aromatic compound—like sotolon, a component found in maple syrup. “For me, it’s just a pleasure of creating new tastes,” says Chartier. “It’s a great playground, it’s like a child being in a Toys R Us. There are a lot of ingredients that I can play with.”
With a beer release for every season, the series currently includes Imperial Sotolon, which evokes notes of maple syrup and is aged in dark rum casks, Saison Froide, meant to echo the coolness of a Sauvignon Blanc and brewed with basil, Japanese Sansho pepper and Mexican blue agave syrup, and the latest release, Solérone d’automne, a Brown Ale with chestnut, cocoa and dried fig accents.
Série Gastronomie beers helped to attract a new market segment of foodies, wine drinkers and beer geeks to Glutenberg. With sales and distribution steadily growing, the brewery sees the popularity of all styles increasing with non-intolerant beer drinkers as well. And as the demand for gluten-free food and beverages grows, the beer segment of this market evolves, too.
“It’s getting more competitive, but it hasn’t changed so much since we entered this market,” says Cayer, who estimates that they have six to eight competitors in Canada, and another eight to 10 in the US.
According to Charbonneau, Glutenberg’s strength is its dedication to gluten-free brewing, allowing them to focus on building the brand, improving the beer and providing more variety. “That’s one thing I found really sad: a brewery doing regular products and they will have their side project of gluten-free beer,” he says. “It’s kind of like the bad child, it’s putting it to the side a bit. We want to put all of our energy into doing the best gluten-free beer possible.”
35-barrel (42-hectoliter) brewing system
– 2 50-hectoliter fermenters
– 6 100-hectoliter fermenters
– 4 100-hectoliter bright tanks
– 2 50-hectoliter bright tanks
Blonde: Light, lemony and dry, Glutenberg’s first release took more than a year to develop. 4.5% ABV
American Pale Ale: Their “true flagship” features citrusy hops, a slight malt backbone and a mildly bitter finish. 5.5% ABV
Red: A Gold Medal winner at the 2012 World Beer Cup, with pleasant caramel malt notes and roasted nuttiness. 5.0% ABV
India Pale Ale: Crisp and dry, the millet, buckwheat, corn and black rice grains step back to highlight American hops. 6.0% ABV
Saison Froide: A refreshing Saison with herbal basil overtones and spicy pepper notes. 5.9% ABV
Imperial Sotolon: Aged in dark rum barrels, with some maple syrup sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm. 8.0% ABV
Imperial Buchweizen: A seasonal “buckwheat wine” with floral and spicy notes. 10.0% ABV ■