I was out north of Wellington yesterday, visiting Upper Hutt. I can’t visit my suburban satellite-city childhood home without visiting at least one of the two interesting new breweries that have set up there in the last few years, and yesterday I chose to visit Kereru Brewing in Maidstone Terrace, to chat with head pigeon Chris Mills and see what interesting and brewery-fresh beer was on the taps (because sometimes fresh is best, Stu McKinley).
While there, my friend spotted the bottles of the ‘Auro’ gluten-free ale in the fridge, and made an excited exclamation. My friend is gluten-intolerant, and the discomfort the gluten in wheat and barley bring is one of the reasons beer doesn’t feature in her preferred drinks. But she’d heard of the Auro. “I’ve heard it’s the best gluten-free beer around!” she said.
“That’s great to hear,” replied Chris, “you should get some while you can. Because this batch will be the last. Won’t be allowed to sell it soon. Or at least call it ‘gluten-free’.”
Chris explained that the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has recently released new guidance for what can and can’t be used to promote or label beverages containing more 1.15% alcohol by volume, and “gluten-free” is now prohibited.
Later, I checked out MPI’s Guidance for Alcoholic Beverage Claims and Statements, published 6 May 2014, and confirmed that from 18 January 2016:
“…nutrition content claims or health claims must not be made for food containing more than 1.15% Alcohol By Volume (ABV). The exception to this is a nutrition content claim about energy content or carbohydrate content.”
Meaning, from that date, no product labelled or described by the retailer / brewer with such claims can be sold in New Zealand.
A “nutrition content claim” is defined by MPI as:
“…a claim that is made about the presence or absence of a biologically active substance, dietary fibre, energy, minerals, potassium, protein, carbohydrate, fat, salt, sodium or vitamins; glycaemic index or glycaemic load that does not refer to the presence of alcohol and is not a health claim. “Gluten free” is captured under the definition of nutrition content claim.”
It’s interesting to see “gluten free” pulled out for emphasis there by MPI there and in other passages of the Guidance; clearly this has been published to directly inform brewers that they can’t put such a statement on their beers. Because if you’re going to be really pedantic about the above statement, perhaps mentioning a particular strain of yeast might be mentioning the presence of a “biologically active substance”.
But, this is all about the “gluten free” statement. Which really raises the question: why?
To answer this, I believe it’s necessary to take into account the other prohibited claim in the Guidance: “health claims”, which is “a claim which states, suggests or implies that a food or a property of food has, or may have, a health effect”.
What I believe we’re seeing here, and this is just my mostly unfounded musing, is another effect of how being gluten-free has come to be used by some producers and seen by some consumers as a generally “health-positive” message, rather than a vital health-warning message for those whose wellbeing can be significantly affected by the ingestion of gluten.
MPI and other government agencies tend to see alcohol as a negative on both society and health. It seems that gluten-free being seen by some to mean “good for you” has come head-to-head with the government’s desire that we think of booze as bad for us.
And, so, a beer that is produced without any gluten can no longer be called gluten-free.
Which is bizarre. Because gluten-free shouldn’t be seen as a claim of the healthiness and positive-ness of a product, because it is a statement of fact. That this thing contains no gluten.
Gluten-free is not a trivial matter. At the very least, being aware of the presence of gluten in a beer can be the difference between having a nice drink and discomfort and embarrassment for someone who is gluten-intolerant. But for someone with coeliac disease, or who may have someone in coeliac disease in their household or life, the presence or absence of gluten can be a matter of life or death at its extremes.
New Zealand brewers could carry on brewing gluten-free beer; but without being able to call it such why would they? Because without being able to clearly state the fact, the brewer is relying on their customers to know enough about the beer to know it’s brewed with the likes of sorghum and rice instead of wheat and barley, and to know the significance of that ingredient change.
The brewer then has to bet that customer-awareness against the time and money cost of having to do a full refurbishing clean of their brewing kit before brewing the gluten-free beer, to ensure its utterly without trace of the protein.
While maybe the brewer can put enough words on the label of a bottle of their beer to coherently tell the consumer that it doesn’t contain gluten without stating that fact obviously, how do they do that when your beer is being sold from the tap in a pub, where all the punter has to go off are the beer and brewer’s name?
Because selling a gluten-free beer without being able to tell your customers that it is such has another cost to a brewer, a reputational cost. Because the truth is that gluten-free beers are difficult to make, and generally don’t come out as well as beers of a similar style brewed with more traditional, gluten-bearing ingredients.
To be honest, gluten-free beers don’t have a great reputation, and in my experience that would be because they often are lacking in carbonation, tend towards a sour flavour, and sometimes carry a scent of something that might blow in off a marshland.
So, a consumer who drinks a gluten-free pale ale without knowing it is so will likely compare it very unfavourably to another pale ale, and will view the brewer that produced it negatively as a result. And, if a brewer can’t tell the drinker why this beer is different, why would any brewer trying to make a living brew a gluten-free beer again in this country, knowing that it would likely hurt the value of their brand as a result?
But back to the Auro, I can happily report that I agree entirely with what my friend had heard – it is the best gluten-free beer I’ve ever had.
It’s sitting nicely within the delicious golden ale style, the malt base is rich and sweet, there’s a nicely citrus waft of hops coming off the top, and it lingers nicely on the tongue. It’s soft and round, and very easily drinkable; and I can see myself happily drinking it on a summer’s afternoon alongside any other light-and-golden mainstream beer. Clean and refreshing, if not overly bright and chirpy.
But, at the same time, I don’t think it is as good as many other golden ales. The ingredients lend themselves to a flat, non-carbonated quality, and there’s a residual sourness sitting at the back of the palate that I wouldn’t expect to find in the style. But I don’t need to compare it with other golden ales – though it is better than some I’ve had – I just need to compare it to other gluten-free beers.
And it is absolutely the best I’ve had that is gluten-free. Hands down.
But, soon, the ability to know if any given beer contains gluten or is gluten-free is being taken from us, due to an alcohol-opposed government policy and the way that some consumers and producers have moved gluten-free from being a statement of fact to a descriptor of some purported health benefit.
And that’s a hell of a shame.
If you’re interested in getting hold of some of the remaining bottles and kegs of Auro, what may be the last best beer brewed in New Zealand that can be legally described as “gluten-free” you should contact the lovely people at Kereru. They’ll be happy to help, I’m sure!