Gluten-free beer is booming with multinational backing

You know a brewing trend must have legs when one of the multinationals takes an interest.

To date, gluten-free beer has been a tiny category in Australia. But now it has the backing of Lion Beer Australia, which has launched Hahn Ultra Crisp, brewed entirely from rice.

"There are some beers out there which use rice as part of the grain mix to balance the flavour, but we are the first in Australia to create a beer that is brewed entirely with rice, instead of grains like wheat or barley," says Lion's technical brewing lead Jeff Potter.

Brand namesake Chuck Hahn says he has been agitating for Lion to have a tilt at a gluten-free beer for some time, having witnessed the category's emergence in the United States.

"I always thought there were enough people out there who wanted gluten-free beers. There's a lot of people out there who think gluten-free is better for you, but they're not coeliac," he says.

Years without beers

Coeliac or not, 12 per cent of Australians are currently avoiding wheat and/or gluten, according to CSIRO research.

Their options for enjoying a beer were further bolstered late in 2018, when Richard Jeffares established Australia's second gluten-free brewery, Two Bays Brewing, on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula.

Its taproom serves exclusively its gluten-free beers and pizzas made with gluten-free bases.

"We have people coming in here saying they haven't had a beer in 25 years," Jeffares says.

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"Others say, 'I got diagnosed as a coeliac on Friday and I'm in here on Saturday. Thank goodness you're around'.

"People love the fact that they can get a pizza and not worry about whether the pizza oven's been cleaned beforehand. It's those small things that really do make a huge difference to coeliacs."

Dry spell

Being told you could never drink beer again – for the rest of your life – is the stuff of nightmares for many of us.

Jeffares knows that feeling. He was diagnosed as a coeliac in 2015 and endured a painful dry spell until he found hope.

Gluten-free beer was still in its infancy in Australia, so Jeffares began looking abroad for alternatives to the full-flavoured craft beers he had previously been able to enjoy.

"When I went to Ground Breaker Brewing in the US, I was nearly moved to tears drinking my first beer since the diagnosis," he says.

Oregon's Ground Breaker is now one of 14 gluten-free craft breweries in North America, according to Jeffares.

He discovered it was getting some very creditable results making beer from grains other than barley, spurring on his plan to launch Australia's second gluten-free brewery after fellow Victorians O'Brien Beer, a flag bearer for the category since 2003.

Jeffares' venture is focused on the craftier end of the spectrum. It has brewed 15 different beers to date, with the Pale Ale and Pilsner in its core range soon to be joined by an IPA.

"The feedback from other brewers is that they are as close to a barley beer as possible," he says.

Beer on rice

Rice is one of several gluten-free grains in use at Two Bays Brewing, which looks to others such as millet and buckwheat to contribute flavour and body.

Jeffares says gluten-free brewing has been a steep learning curve for Two Bays head brewer Andrew Gow, formerly of Mornington Peninsula Brewing Company.

"We threw out so much beer early on, and as the owner it's like, 'oh god how much more are we going to throw out'," Jeffares recalls.

"But at the same time we wanted to make sure it was right. There's been times where Andrew's been very frustrated by the process and then other times where it comes out and he's pretty happy about how it compares to other beers.

"The first thing for us is, we absolutely recognise the beer will taste different. As long as it's of good quality, and as true to style as we can make it, we put it out there and ask for feedback."

Legendary brewmaster Chuck Hahn says the first challenge confronting Lion brewers was getting an attractive head on the beer, which is largely down to the amount of protein in the grain.

"Rice has only one quarter the protein content of barley," says Hahn.

"To make this beer look as good as it does, it's just amazing the way they've done that."

Future flavour

The project is a significant departure from the flavour-led brewing that has characterised the latter years of Chuck Hahn's career, mostly spent championing the James Squire brand.

"I like making beers that people enjoy drinking, whether it's a rich-flavoured craft beer or a something easy drinking like Hahn Super Dry or Hahn Ultra Crisp," he says.

Two Bays' beers have found their way onto the drinks list at Victoria's world-renowned Brae Restaurant, and drinkers were quick to snap up the initial offering of its packaged beer via direct sales on its website.

"We've delivered to Darwin, Broken Hill, Margaret River, Tasmania and every capital city all the way up the coast," says Jeffares.

Far from being concerned that a brewing such giant Lion is moving onto his turf, Jeffares is delighted.

"They are coming out with beer at a price point that is very comparable to their other Hahn products," he says.

"Hahn Ultra will appeal to the gluten-free consumer that possibly wants a beer but doesn't want to spend craft beer pricing.

"Once you've got the category recognised then people will upsell themselves to more interesting flavours, so I think it's great."