C&C, which already owns the Magners’ and Hornsby’s labels, now has a solid lock on the U.S. market with the acquisition of the Woodchuck brands. But it paid a lot for a niche product that might never reach the popularity here that it enjoys in the British Isles.
Might C&C be eyeing the burgeoning market in this country for gluten-free foods and beverages?
Cider is fermented from apples and other fruits that contain no gluten, a term for a class of gummy proteins (found in common brewing grains such as barley and wheat) capable of provoking a severe allergic reaction in celiac disease sufferers or those who are gluten-intolerant.
“I was talking with a pub owner recently, and he told me that one out of four cider drinkers drink it because it’s gluten-free,” said Rob Widmer, co-founder of Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland, Ore.
Widmer is offering an alternative.
Unlike other gluten-free beers — which are made with barley substitutes such as sorghum or molasses — Widmer’s Omission Lager and Omission Pale Ale are made with malted barley like regular beers. But it’s a low-protein variety that’s treated with an enzyme during fermentation to break down the gluten.
The lager is lightly malty, clean, easy-drinking. The pale ale has that citrusy, resiny Cascade hop bite familiar to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale drinkers. A gluten-free India pale ale is due out early next year.
Rob Widmer was concluding a national tour at ChurchKey to promote his Omission line because “these beers don’t exist in the federal government’s eyes.” The Tax and Trade Bureau and the FDA, he explained, won’t let him label the 12-ounce bottles gluten-free because there are no standards for what constitutes a “deglutenized” brew.
He says even the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver in mid-October wouldn’t allow him to enter his Omission beers in its Gluten Free Beer category for judging. (Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington won the gold medal for its Nikki’s Gluten Free Honey Pale Ale.)
But celiacs, Widmer noted, do a lot of networking, and he’s relying on word of mouth via satisfied customers to get the word out about a gluten-free beer that tastes like a regular one. Maybe that’s why he was so generous: Every guest at Thursday’s D.C. debut party received a take-home bag with a six-pack of each Omission brand.
What’s the potential market for a gluten-free beer? Wayne Biggs, vice president of sales and marketing for Guiffre Distributing in Springfield . (which carries Omission, Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge and a few other gluten-free brews), gave an off-the-cuff estimate of about 3 million cases. That would amount to just under 220,000 barrels — the output of a sizable craft brewery.
Citing a figure of 12 million celiacs in the United States, Widmer speculated about “the tip of the iceberg”; his Omission beers might appeal to drinkers suffering from less-serious allergies, those on low-carb diets and ordinary beer drinkers who just want something that tastes good.
That last consideration is important. Celiacs, Widmer said, don’t want to feel isolated or be forced into drinking something that no one else at the bar is having.
“I don’t like cider. It’s too sweet,” said debut party guest Becky Fowler, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2008. She has not been impressed with barley-free beers thus far. But she seemed to be enjoying Omission Pale Ale, which she credits with putting her back on the team, so to speak: “If you’re watching a ballgame, you don’t want to be sipping on a wine!”
Gesturing at the crowd, perhaps split 50-50 between celiacs and non-celiacs, Widmer said, “The great thing is that we’re all drinking the same beer!”
Kitsock’s Beer column appears once a month in Food.