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Expanding the Brotherhood of Beer

Unfiltered by | Dec 2012 | Issue #71

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

Flavorful ales and lagers have for years ruled the positive news cycles in America. We’ve seen incredible growth mixed with bursts of unforeseeable creativity. As the craft beer market starts to settle a bit, with extreme beer for its own sake receding in importance, brewers are returning to nurture their home markets and trying to find ways to keep up with explosive demand. Consequently, there is an attention vacuum that two new drink categories hope to fill and that deserve the support of loyal craft beer drinkers.

In recent months, we’ve seen two new beverages, neither quite beer but clearly siblings in the struggle for hearts and palates, fighting against giant corporate opponents. The story of these two beverages both parallels and contrasts with the rise of American craft beer.

Taking cues from our British counterparts and in a nod to American Revolutionary history, artisanal cider makers appear ready to introduce a new era of small-batch hard apple cider. Once a staple on American tables and in pubs, hard cider lost out to beer and hard spirits in the days since this nation’s founding.

Starting in 1991, the Woodchuck brand laid the groundwork necessary to revive this once-widespread Colonial-era classic. The brand slowly built recognition for itself, as well as the production of hard cider in general. Larger corporations soon followed suit. Today, the cider category is considered the next big thing, with brewers from Boston Beer to Harpoon to MillerCoors fighting to gain traction. With its substantial ties to the craft beer community, and as some brewers leave to start cideries, it’s time to pay close attention to hard cider.

Beyond apples, the next big story appears to lie in the area of gluten-free beer. As the identification and diagnosis of food allergies continues to rise, more people find their alcohol options growing increasingly limited. Perhaps the saddest of these situations, to my mind, is a diagnosis of gluten intolerance. These individuals, including those suffering from Celiac disease, are all but excluded from consuming beer due to its substantial use of gluten-rich barley.

With many such friends, I’m always sympathetic when they tell me the thing they miss most is a full-flavored beer. Many companies and brewers have attempted to craft gluten-free alternatives, and these near-beers, often made with millet, sorghum and buckwheat, are perfectly acceptable beverages. These gluten-free offerings would not, however, be mistaken for beer. That is, until a new player entered the picture.

Brewed by Widmer Brothers Brewing in Oregon, the Omission line of beers provides glimmers of hope to those who cannot process gluten. The Omission beers taste like beer—and good beer at that. To be clear, the Omission beers, which include a bright and lively Pale Ale and a very clean lager, are not gluten free in the strictest sense. They are made with proprietary, deglutenized barley, which results in a very low level of gluten (around 5 to 6 parts per million, well below the industry gluten-free standard of safety, 20 ppm). Each batch is tested to confirm the gluten levels. The consumers and friends I’ve talked to have not experienced any adverse reactions to the beer.

The debate over how gluten-free beer should be defined continues to rage in health, industry and government circles. For its part, the Great American Beer Festival did not allow the Omission beers to compete in the gluten-free beer category. As the standards evolve, I hope that the GABF makes room for Omission and its progeny in some form that acknowledges its low gluten levels. Unlike many other judged beer styles, here is one category where a GABF medal could really help this brother of craft beer promote itself to a very deserving community of thirsty consumers.

For craft beer drinkers occasionally interested in looking beyond the IPA horizon, cider and gluten-free beers offer a refreshing chance to experience both new and growing beverage categories, and to support artisan and enterprising craftsmen. It’s time to welcome these brothers and sisters into the fold as natural extensions of the philosophy underlying the craft beer community.