Naturally Gluten Free Beer: a Closer Look
Gluten Free Beer. To a celiac, those refreshing words are almost never uttered in the same sentence. Except maybe, “I wish I had a gluten free beer!” Until around 2006, there was little to no chance this wish would come true.
It seems that as long as man has been farming cereal grains, we’ve been making beer from surplus grains like barley. In fact, archaeologists believe that beer was integral to the early formation of complex civilizations, founded on the importance of feasting ceremonies that brought groups together for political, social, trading and support reasons.
Throughout history, barley has been the primary brewing grain of choice, dating back to at least 3400 B.C.; in fact the oldest food quality regulation still used in the 21st century was based entirely on the limitation of ingredients used in the brewing of beer. This Bavarian law restricted beer makers to using only barley, hops and water – a tradition still upheld by the majority of German breweries and others around the world. Even in the United States, a “malt beverage” has been defined for regulatory purposes as being made from barley, water and hops, with or without other ingredients for flavor.
So for celiacs and others avoiding gluten-containing grains like barley, enjoying beer was a faint, happy memory until quite recently. Once breweries did get into the business of brewing beers for the gluten-free community, two types of non-traditional beers emerged: naturally gluten-free beers made from gluten-free grains and “gluten-reduced,” “low gluten,” or “crafted to remove gluten” beers made from barley and other gluten-containing grains.
In the U.S., this second kind of beer is not allowed to be labeled as “gluten-free”, although local state laws may differ when the beers do not cross state lines. This distinction is important because like other barley beers, these “gluten-reduced” beers remain under the regulatory umbrella of the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), while naturally gluten-free beers are within the FDA’s (Food and Drug Administration) labeling jurisdiction.
Consistent with the new FDA regulations, TTB will continue to consider “gluten-free” label claims for alcohol beverages that are made from gluten-containing grains to be misleading to consumers who are seeking to avoid the consumption of gluten for health reasons. However, products made from gluten-containing grains may be labeled with a statement that the product was “Processed,” “Treated,” or “Crafted” to remove gluten, if that claim is made together with a qualifying statement that warns the consumer that the gluten content of the product cannot be determined and that the product may contain gluten.
Experts caution against celiacs and those with gluten sensitivity drinking these beers, since there is no scientifically accepted test to determine whether such fermented beverages are truly gluten free enough to be safe. Thus, while these beers cannot be labeled “gluten-free,” you may still find them erroneously shelved in the gluten-free beer section or on a gluten-free beer menu, so use caution. If you are confused about which beers are naturally gluten-free and which are gluten-reduced, choose only beers with a nutrition label, since that indicates it is regulated by the FDA and therefore, does not contain barley. (For more information listen to the podcast interview with GFCO regarding their study).
Fortunately for all of us living without gluten, some brew masters have found amazingly creative ways to create safe beers we can all enjoy, and have embraced available gluten-free ingredients not as limitations, but as opportunities.
One such brewery is MillerCoors®, which, in 2015, released its first naturally gluten-free beer, Coors Peak Copper Lager. After being so well received, Coors Peak® Golden Lager was added to the portfolio this past March. Coors Peak has always been naturally gluten-free and has led the charge in conversations around labeling and ingredient transparency, particularly for the beer industry. (UPDATE: MillerCoors has announced that Coors Peak will no longer be brewed as of the fall of 2016).
In light of Celiac Awareness Month I sat down with Tristan Meline, Senior Brand Manager, Coors Peak, to get more details on how Coors Peak® is made, the reason why MillerCoors decided to offer a gluten-free option, the timeline and process for developing the portfolio, and the continued dedication MillerCoors has to the gluten-free community.*
- How long has MillerCoors been researching Coors Peak? When did each of the Coors Peak styles launch?
Coors Peak had been in the making for nearly five years prior to going to market in 2015. We launched Coors Peak’s initial style, Coors Peak Copper Lager, in the Seattle and Portland metropolitan areas in February of 2015, and its second style, Coors Peak Golden Lager, in March of 2016.
- What caused MillerCoors to become interested in developing and offering gluten-free beer?
Beer is a wonderful thing, and we believe everyone should be able to enjoy it.
In today’s world, most people know someone who has been diagnosed with celiac disease or has gluten sensitivity. In our business, it’s no different. I have friends and co-workers that miss the simple enjoyment of a great tasting beer. A lot are missing it because they don’t feel like they have enjoyable options to choose from. Many gluten-free beers lack the depth and complexity of regular beers so consumers end up having to choose between gluten-reduced beers and other non-gluten beverage options.
So in response, we set out to do what we believed hadn’t been done before… brew a great tasting, naturally gluten-free beer.
- Why only enter the market in the PacNW?
Because of the resources needed to safely brew a gluten-free beer we are currently limited in our brewing capacity.
We began offering the Coors Peak portfolio in the PacNW because it is widely known for its beer enthusiasts and its active, health-oriented residents, a perfect fit for our line of naturally gluten-free beers.
- What changes allowed the Coors Peak brewmasters to begin to experiment with gluten-free ingredients?
MillerCoors has always been committed to innovation and creating options for all types of consumers. Over the past five years we have seen an increasing demand for products that are naturally made, as well as a rise in consumers who are celiac or proactively choosing a gluten-free lifestyle. Coors Peak grew from this demand, and we are proud to be able to deliver an all-natural, great tasting and gluten-free beer that everyone can enjoy.
- Who was tapped to undertake the challenge of developing a gluten-free formula worthy of the MillerCoors brand?
Troy Rysewyk, MillerCoors manager of brewing technology and innovation, developed the Coors Peak portfolio. Troy has years of brewing experience and is constantly innovating and developing new products in our industry. He was excited to undertake the task of creating Coors Peak, wanting to highlight the versatility of our signature brewing process and access to quality ingredients through its development.
- How long did it take MillerCoors to develop the recipes for both Coors Peak brands?
It took over five years to develop the initial Coors Peak recipe. Troy experimented with a variety of grains including millet, buckwheat and sorghum, as well as a number of rice varieties. However, he wasn’t able to get the desired flavor until using malted brown rice, which is what is used in Coors Peak. Ultimately, Troy believes malted brown rice is able to best deliver the depth and complexity of a regular beer while still being naturally gluten free.
- Why did it take so long to create a gluten-free formula?
It takes time to do things right, especially when you are creating a beer for those with gluten intolerance. Those with celiac, in particular, are impacted by even the smallest traces of gluten. In order to create a 100% naturally gluten-free beer we had to take our time testing the brew so that we could deliver the best beer possible.
We test each batch to ensure the level of gluten proteins is well below the FDA regulated 20ppm. Both Coors Peak styles test well below 5ppm.
- What gluten-free grains were chosen to brew the Coors Peak brands, and why?
We used California brown rice to replace barley or wheat, the main ingredients in beers containing gluten. We choose brown rice because it is 100% naturally gluten free, and because it provides a smooth and balanced flavor profile.
- Many breweries are now brewing “gluten-reduced” beers that they treat with chemicals or enzymes meant to break down the gluten to make the beers contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Why did MillerCoors decide not to brew a so-called “de-glutenized” or “gluten-reduced” beer instead of one that is naturally gluten free?
From the beginning, we’ve focused on brewing a 100% naturally gluten-free beer. While there is an increasing number of breweries who have chosen to use enzymatic processes to “reduce” measurable gluten in their beers, we chose a different approach.
We decided to brew with 100% naturally gluten-free ingredients and to isolate our production in order to ensure the highest quality product. That way, there is nothing standing in the way of the enjoyment of the beer itself.
- How were the Coors Peak formulas tested to see if they would have widespread appeal?
After considering multiple grain options, we landed on using California brown rice and Pacific Northwest hops because we believe it creates the best tasting flavor profile that drinks like a regular beer. We conducted multiple blind consumer tests with regular, gluten consuming beer drinkers to ensure that we are delivering a great tasting beer that all beer lovers could enjoy, not just those who lead a gluten-free lifestyle.
- Are there any members of the Coors Peak team who are gluten free?
No members of the Coors Peak team are personally gluten free but many team members have family or loved ones who suffer from celiac disease or who maintain a gluten-free lifestyle. These relationships help give the team insight into the gluten-free sphere.
- Are the Coors Peak brands brewed in a dedicated gluten-free facility?
Coors Peak brands are currently brewed in a brewery where other non-GF beers are brewed. However, we take the utmost care to isolate the brewing of both Coors Peak brands to maintain it as a gluten-free beer. In fact, the Gluten Intolerance Group has certified that our facility and the processes that we employ are capable of safely brewing gluten-free beer. Testing is performed by our internal MillerCoors quality lab throughout the brewing and packaging processes. Every batch of final packaged product is tested by a world-class third-party lab – FARRP lab at the University of Nebraska.
- Why did MillerCoors decide to pursue certification from the Gluten Free Certification Organization for its Coors Peak brands, specifically?
This certification was incredibly important to us given the increasing demand for certification from consumers who are celiac or chose a gluten-free lifestyle. With there being a number of beers that are “gluten-reduced” versus 100% gluten free, we wanted to go the extra mile to ensure our consumer’s confidence in our product’s quality, knowing it is approved by a third party that is highly regarded in the gluten-free community.
- What is involved in becoming certified Gluten Free from the GFCO?
GFCO requires that all finished products using the GFCO logo contain 10ppm or less of gluten. We had to ensure that all the ingredients being brewed to make both Coors Peak brands contained 10 ppm or less of gluten. Both brands consistently test below 5ppm. We test every finished batch to ensure we are always below the 10ppm mark, meeting GFCO testing requirements that allows us to bear its seal.
- There are other gluten free certifying agencies; how and why did the Coors Peak brands choose to pursue GFCO as its gluten-free certification?
While there are other gluten free certifying agencies, the Coors Peak brands choose to go with certification from the GFCO because we believe that it has the most rigorous certification process and is the most respected within the industry. The GFCO is dedicated to providing certification through intensive quality assessment and control measures, and it’s a trusted resource for the gluten-free community. Beyond this, their certification label is widely recognized by consumers who are both gluten free and otherwise. This enables consumers to immediately know that our products are gluten free and have been certified.
- How do consumers identify beers that are certified by independent agencies such as the GFCO?
All of our beers contain the GFCO’s highly recognizable label.
- How do consumers know that the beer they’re choosing is naturally gluten-free, as opposed to “gluten-reduced”?
Our packaging contains the Certified Gluten Free label issued by the GFCO and has information located on the side of the packaging that makes a quick and impactful impression about our naturally gluten-free production process. Additionally, we have ingredients listed on every bottle so that consumers are able to access product information easily.
- Currently, Coors Peak is only available in the Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington markets. What are the plans for expansion into nationwide distribution?
National distribution is something we strive for, but we want to make sure that we are able to scale large while maintaining the highest quality.
- Coors Peak just released its new style, Coors Peak Golden Lager. Are there any plans in the works for other variations or flavors?
MillerCoors is always innovating and testing new opportunities. Coors Peak offers an exciting platform for future growth.
*Thanks to Coors® Peak for sponsoring this post. I only work with companies and products that I love and recommend. Read my disclosure policy here.