May 14, 2019

The Challenges of Brewing Gluten-Free Beer

Until recently, gluten-free beer wasn’t something on the industry’s radar. For those who suffer from celiac disease or have gluten intolerances, being able to enjoy beer was simply out of the question.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley – all of which are main ingredients in beer brewing.

Celiac is an immune disease where people cannot eat gluten because it causes painful inflammation and damage to the lining of their small intestines. If you have celiac disease and eat foods or drink beverages that contain gluten, your immune system quickly responds with intestinal discomfort and damage which often leads to other, more serious medical complications.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Karen Hertz, owner of Holidaily Brewing in Golden, CO, during this year’s Craft Brewers Conference in Denver. Holidaily Brewing is the only dedicated, certified gluten-free brewing facility in Colorado at this time.

A two-time cancer survivor, Karen adopted a gluten-free diet as part of her treatment plan after having survived thyroid cancer and melanoma.

Karen loved beer but thought she would never be able to enjoy it again. She recalled how not being able to drink beer with friends made her feel left out. She often hesitated to tell others that she was gluten-sensitive because she didn’t want to be pitied or perceived as high-maintenance.

Clearly, there’s a stigma around the gluten-free conversation, mainly because most people don’t understand what it is or how serious it can be.

This was the start of Karen’s mission. Her goal was to avoid creating a mediocre gluten-free beer that would only appeal to those who can’t consume gluten. Instead, she would invent a phenomenal craft beer for everyone that has the added benefit of being gluten-free.

In the beginning, she conducted blind taste tests on her beer, asking samplers to choose the gluten-free one out of the mix. Most people got it wrong! This is when Karen knew: “We’re onto something here.”

Although creating a gluten-free beer that tastes great was a huge hurdle for Karen, there turned out to be so many other challenges that needed to be faced when brewing this type of beverage.

Yes, this is an exciting advancement for those who are unable to consume gluten. At the same time, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping both the ingredients and the equipment used in the brewery completely gluten-free. A dedicated gluten-free environment is mandatory when brewing and packaging certified gluten-free beer.

Gluten-free may seem like a trend, but celiac disease is a serious illness to many. Beer without gluten is a big deal, and it is here to stay.

Since Karen is proving to be the expert on gluten-free beer and brewing, we had some questions for this fascinating woman and about her gluten-free brewery.

SLG: “For people who have gluten intolerance or allergies, the possibility of cross-contamination is a point of concern. What measures should brewers take to ensure there is no cross-contamination from outside sources?”

KH: “At Holidaily, we are certified gluten-free, which means we are audited annually. We are required to do a certain amount of training, and all ingredients and equipment must be tested and inspected consistently. All brewery equipment needs to be completely gluten-free and must be brand new to avoid risk of cross-contamination.”    

SLG: “What about retail locations that sell gluten-free beer?”

KH: “When retail locations have gluten-free beer on tap, it must have its own separate tap line. Once the tap is used for gluten-free product, it cannot be used for any other beer. Holidaily Brewing provides special training for these retail locations and their staff. You might think that the extra care required would be considered “more trouble than it is worth.” But the reality is that many of the locations that offer Holidaily are owned or managed by people who have celiac disease or know someone with the disease. They know the seriousness of the issue. These on-premise locations attract a segment of the market that has limited options, and those patrons usually bring additional family and friends with them.

“This also ties into the kegs we use. We became an SLG KegID customer after realizing how important it was to track and retrieve our kegs. In order to keep up with the market demand for our beer, we realized we needed more kegs. But the other side of that coin meant that we needed to expand our brewing capacity as well. We found that leasing the additional cooperage from SLG KegFleet meant that we could use our capital dollars towards the expansion of the brewery. When you’re brewing gluten-free beer, there is no room for error. On a happy note, the newly expanded brewery facility opened earlier this month.”

SLG: “What is the difference between gluten-free and gluten-reduced beer?”

KH: “Gluten-reduced beer is brewed in the traditional manner with barley and wheat, and an enzyme is dropped in during the brewing process, breaking the gluten protein into tiny particles. The gluten is still in the beer, but like the name suggests, reduced. Gluten-sensitive consumers cannot drink this type of beer without experiencing problems.

“At Holidaily, we are completely gluten-free, which means that every single ingredient has to be gluten-free and is tested to confirm before the brewing happens. The ingredients of beer are water, hops, yeast, and grain. Water and hops are naturally gluten-free. We source specific strains of yeast that are grown in gluten-free environments, but the grain is the tricky part. We use buckwheat and millet to solve this issue.”

Karen and her staff know that what they are doing is making a difference for beer lovers. In fact, many gluten-restricted patrons who thought they would never be able to enjoy beer again, become very emotional when they savor their first of many Holidaily beers. It’s more than just about the beer. They’re returning to the craft beer scene again.

Karen Hertz is the founder and head brewer of Holidaily Brewing Company, located at 801 Brickyard Circle, Golden, Colorado.  (holidailybrewing.com)