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Kettlehouse taps into global gluten-free trend

Long-suffering "celiacs" deserve a cold one more than most, and Kettlehouse Brewing Co. has brewed a gluten-free beer to quench their craving.

Now if only regular beer drinkers would keep their mitts off it.

According to Kettlehouse bartender Al Pils, even those who can guzzle all the barley-infused booze they want without gastrointestinal upheaval have been asking for the brewery's new gluten-free beer, Seeley Axe. That, Pils says, serves as the best evidence that the Missoula brewery has tapped into something tasty—which, for a gluten-free beer, says a lot.

"The interesting thing," Pils says, "is that most of the people who drink it are not gluten-intolerant, but they drink it because they like the style."

click to enlarge Kettlehouse brewer Tommy Patches pulls a sample of the brewery’s new “gluten-reduced” Seeley Axe from the vat. - PHOTO BY CARTHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Carthrine L. Walters
  • Kettlehouse brewer Tommy Patches pulls a sample of the brewery’s new “gluten-reduced” Seeley Axe from the vat.

If Kettlehouse bar-flies are pleased with the new offering, local microbrew fans with celiac disease are downright giddy. The Kettlehouse started brewing Seeley Axe—get it?—last month with the gluten-free grain sorghum and, in the tradition of Belgian white beers, bitter orange peel and coriander. For celiac disease sufferers, the gluten proteins found in foods that contain wheat, barley and rye damage the lining of the small intestine, preventing it from absorbing nutrients and producing unpleasant symptoms.

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than two million Americans have celiac disease, or about one in 133 people. Among those with a parent or sibling diagnosed with the disease, as many as one in 22 people may have it. But the vast majority of people don't know to get tested.

As celiac disease diagnoses have increased, so too has the gluten-free food and beverage industry. One market researcher, Packaged Facts, reports that the industry increased at an average growth rate of about 28 percent from 2004 to 2008. Still, the Brewers Association estimates that gluten-free beer accounts for less than 0.1 percent of the beer market. Fortunately for beer-loving celiacs, the Kettlehouse is one of a growing number of breweries working to brew gluten-free beers that taste as good as regular beers on tap and in the grocery store.

"It's definitely something I hear coming up more and more often," says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association. "And for folks especially with celiac disease or with gluten-free diet desires, it's a great option, because a lot people do crave beer and miss having it."

Reflecting the growing number of gluten-free beers, and the number of customers clamoring for them, the Brewers Association added a gluten-free beer category to its Great American Beer Festival competition in 2007. The silver medal winner that year was New Grist, brewed by Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wis. Lakefront, according to its president Russ Klisch, was the first brewery, back in 2005, to gain approval from the government to make gluten-free beer.

"There was a definition of beer from the federal government [dating back to 1935] that said to call something beer it had to be made with 25 percent malted barley," Klisch says. "That's what made beer beer...It was basically a new classification of beer for them."

Today, Lakeside distributes New Grist to 32 states, according to Klisch. He says Montanans should expect to see it in a handful of grocery stores in the coming months.

The Great American Beer Festival's gluten-free gold medal winner in 2007 and 2008 was Anheuser-Busch's Redbridge, the country's most widely distributed gluten-free beer. The company declined to provide any sales data, but if local trends are any indication, the beer has been hugely successful.

Greg Munger, the Good Food Store's beer and wine buyer, says he's seen a significant increase in demand in recent years for gluten-free beers, specifically Redbridge.

"The challenge for me, actually, has been meeting that demand," Munger says. "Redbridge on any given day or month is typically one of our best selling beer packages, and that's up against [Kettlehouse] Cold Smoke and everything else. It's always among the top 10 beer packages."

As craft brewers try to cut into Redbridge's market share, they report a number of challenges, most notably cost. Kettlehouse owner Tim O'Leary says Seeley Axe has proven more expensive and more labor intensive. Beyond that, he describes trying to ensure no cross-contamination between Seeley Axe and the brewery's other beers as a "logistical nightmare." He's also recently had the beer tested in a laboratory, which found the brew to be gluten-free, or at least containing less than 5 parts per million (ppm), the test's detection limit. Still, just to be safe, the brewery advertises the beer as "gluten-reduced."

For now, the Kettlehouse plans to keep the beer available at its Myrtle Street taproom and gauge the response—response to the taste and the physical response the beer elicits among sufferers of celiac disease.

"I hate to say it," O'Leary says, "but for some people they just might not be able to drink beer. If we can make a beer and have it tested at less than 5 ppm, and somebody drinks it and has a problem, I think that's saying that maybe they should just not even bother. It's a sad thing to think about, but we're doing our best, and I think we nailed it, and that's as far as we can take it."

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