This story was first published in The Boston Globe on Jan. 14, 2007.
THE BEER WAS delivered recently in a package, each bottle sealed in bubble wrap, courtesy of Anheuser-Busch. This was not graft; it was research. I had to drink these four beers for a story. But not right away. I wanted to savor these treasures. This wasn’t just any beer. This was beer I could actually drink. This beer was gluten-free.
That distinction might not mean much to most people. But to me, and an estimated 3 million other Americans who suffer from celiac disease, gluten-free is a magical term. It means a product is free of wheat, rye, or any other grains that contain the protein gluten. Most people eat these grains all the time — in bread, pasta, and cereal, to name just a few staples. But for those who suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder often handed down from parent to child, gluten causes a host of problems, eating away the lining of the small intestine, a process that can lead to severe digestive problems, malnutrition, and fatigue.
A decade ago most food manufacturers cared little about this market. And who could blame them? Celiac disease was unknown, misunderstood, foreign. Celiacs like me wandered from health food store to health food store, reading the ingredients on packages, searching for food we could actually eat.
That’s why this bubble-wrapped beer was so important. It was an indication that things were changing. If Anheuser-Busch is taking the time to brew, bottle, and distribute a gluten-free beer, called Redbridge, then something’s going on here. Gluten-free is going mainstream.
. . .
“I think it is the tipping point for people suffering from celiac disease, diagnosed and undiagnosed,” said Alice Bast, executive director of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. “The fact that Anheuser-Busch has taken such an interest, a lot of food companies — major food companies — are going to get into the marketplace. And maybe even some beer companies will get into the marketplace to compete against them.”
The reason Anheuser-Busch is entering the market, simply put, is money. The gluten-free food and beverage market — almost nonexistent when I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1999 — has exploded in recent years as awareness of the disease has increased. Doctors once considered it extremely rare in North America, if they considered it at all. Celiac was well below the radar, its symptoms often disregarded. Fatigued? Maybe you’re not eating right. Having digestive problems? Maybe you’re just “sensitive” to certain foods. This serious condition often went undiagnosed by doctors who found other ways to explain why patients weren’t feeling well.
Just a decade ago, celiac was considered “extraordinarily rare,” said Dr. Ciaran Kelly, the medical director of the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, with only an estimated one in 5,000 people in North America suffering from the disease. Now that number has been set at one in 133 and, accordingly, the market has grown.
Sales of gluten-free products were predicted to reach almost $700 million in 2006, more than three times the 2001 total, according to a study released last summer by market research publisher Packaged Facts. The report went on to predict that the market will continue to grow 25 percent annually over the next four years, reaching roughly $1.7 billion in annual sales by the end of 2010.
The result is already obvious on the shelves of some local grocery stores. There are gluten-free waffles, gluten-free pizzas, and, though hard to find, even a couple of gluten-free beers, including Dragon’s Gold, first brewed by Bard’s Tale Beer in 2004.
But despite all this growth, Bast, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1994, was still shocked when the folks from Anheuser-Busch called her more than a year ago asking if anyone would be interested in a gluten-free beer. She realized, she said, that this was about more than just having a beer that she could find at her neighborhood grocer. “To think that somebody like Anheuser-Busch was taking an interest in the gluten-free market,” she said, “was going to take it to a whole new level.”
Anheuser-Busch had some questions, including: “Do celiacs even miss beer?” Told the answer was yes, yes, definitely yes, the company decided this was a “viable commercial opportunity,” said vice president of innovation Pat McGauley, and proceeded to tinker with its recipe, replacing barley with sorghum, a cereal grass native to Africa.
“We wanted it to taste like beer,” said Anheuser-Busch brewmaster Kristin Zantop, who played with the recipe for months at the company’s research pilot brewery in St. Louis. Some batches came out tart, acidic. “Not exactly the flavor we wanted,” said Zantop.
But by last fall, McGauley said, the brewers had finally found the right balance and made a gluten-free beer that tasted pretty much like beer. “That was one of the positives as we got feedback,” said McGauley. “‘Wow, it tastes like beer and it’s good.’ The next question was: ‘When can I get it?’”
That was pretty much my question, too. That’s why, when FedEx finally delivered the four bottles of Redbridge to my house, I stared at it for a while, stunned. When told that you can no longer have something anymore, you go to great lengths to convince yourself and others that you don’t want it anyway.
Beer? Nah. Don’t miss it. I’ll have a glass a wine as we watch the football game. I’m fine.
That night, this particular charade ended for me. I cooked a gluten-free pizza, grabbed a cold one from the fridge, and then sat down on the couch with my wife to watch a football game.
The beer was no Guinness. The sorghum makes it just a tad sweet on the finish. But it was most definitely a beer. Smelled like it. Looked like it. And — to me, anyway — tasted like it.
I leaned back on the couch, beer in one hand and pizza in another. I was back, baby. A man in full, gluten free.
Keith O’Brien is a freelance writer based in Boston.