For beer executive Terry Michaelson and brewmaster Joe Casey, developing a delicious gluten-free beer wasn't just business, it was personal. Michaelson had worked in beer for about a decade when he found out he had celiac disease in 2001. Casey, on the other hand, had spent his life perfecting IPAs and stouts that his celiac wife would never be able to try after her 2005 diagnosis.
A year ago, the two brought to market the gluten-free brand of beer Omission (under the umbrella of the Craft Brew Alliance, a small Portland-based conglomerate) and have quickly found distribution for their pale ale and lager in Canada, Europe and 48 U.S. states.
The only problem? The beer's label can't bear the phrase most relevant to its target market—"gluten-free"—even after the announcement by the Food and Drug Administration two weeks ago that the agency had crafted guidelines for gluten-free labeling.
According to the agency's decision, any food product that contains less than 20 parts per million gluten can now adorn itself with the label "gluten-free," even if it was made with gluten-containing ingredients, like wheat, which were processed to remove the gluten.
But what complicates matters for Omission is that unlike many gluten-free beers that are made from sorghum or honey, Omission's base is the gluten-containing (and traditional) barley malt, which makes it a "malted beverage," so that it falls under the regulation of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), not the FDA. (Omission's gluten is removed from the barley through a propietary process that involves adding an enzyme to the beer.)
The result is that Omission tastes more like typical beer, according to Michaelson and Casey. "Twelve years ago, when I would find a 'gluten-free' product, it wouldn't have gluten in it, but it would also taste like cardboard," Michaelson says. But the problem is that the bottles, which read "crafted to remove gluten" can be confusing to gluten-free consumers who learn to scan a food item's label the moment they encounter it on a store's shelf. "When you look at a label and it says it includes malt, you're trained to be concerned about that," Michaelson says.
But Casey insists that their beer is just as free of gluten as ones that already bear the label "gluten-free." "The FDA, until now, has allowed producers of sorghum and other kinds of alternative grains to claim 'gluten-free' on their labels without, really, no regulations at all," he says. "You may see some beers out in the marketplace that are labeled gluten-free and others that are not even though they actually are."
Part of Omission's strategy to assuage customers about their beer's status is to publish the results of gluten analysis tests for each batch of beer online (usually at less than 10 parts per million of gluten, well within the FDA's cut-off). "What gluten-free customers really want is fact-based, science-based information so they can make an informed decision," Michaelson says, "and that hasn't been very available in the U.S." He points to Europe and Canada (and Omission's home-state of Oregon, which passed its own gluten-free guidelines) as being ahead of the game with regulations. Omission sent to those locations can wear a "gluten-free" label already, since they have guidelines in place.
For now, the TTB doesn't recognize the kind of testing that Omission and others use to test the gluten-content in its beverages, claiming that those "methods have not yet been scientifically validated to accurately measure the gluten content of fermented products," on the agency's website. The TTB allows brands to say "Processed or Treated or Crafted to remove gluten" so long as they disclaim that the product was made from a grain that contains gluten, that there's no valid test to verify a fermented beverage's gluten content, and that the finished product may contain gluten.
Despite sitting in regulatory grey zone right now, Casey says that "we're very optimistic that the TTB will catch up and we'll be able to label it gluten-free." And in less sober news, they're about to debut an IPA this month.