When is a beer not a beer? When it's gluten-free.
And as of Monday, it's also when the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates the labeling of beer, wine and spirits, handed off regulation of said cold, sudsy brews to the Food and Drug Administration.
That's good news for the nation's estimated two million sufferers of celiac disease, for whom consuming any kind of gluten can cause chronic diarrhea, arthritis, bone loss and a host of other symptoms. Their immune systems react to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, causing inflammation in their small intestine, interfering with the absorption of nutrients.
Beers brewed the traditional way, with malted barley, contain gluten. But small craft brewers and then Anheuser-Busch began making beer from malted sorghum, an African grain, and sometimes rice. Both are gluten free. That was great for celiacs but didn't fit in the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935's definition of beer, which was a beverage brewed from malted barley and other grains.
So that amber, foamy and distinctly beer-tasting beverage didn't count as beer under the regs. Which is why last July 7, 2008, the FDA and TTB agreed that FDA would take over regulation.
On Monday, FDA issued its Guidance for Industry covering these non-barley beers. And to the benefit of the one in 133 Americans who can't eat anything containing gluten, these beverages can now officially be labeled gluten-free once they've been tested and confirmed by FDA.
"For the longest time I couldn't put gluten-free on the label, because there wasn't a definition" under TTB regulations, says Russ Klisch, whose Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee makes a sorghum beer, New Grist.
A friend whose father had the disease told Klisch how much his dad missed having a beer now and then, and then it turned out Klisch's brew master's father also had it. These people needed beer, they decided.
Now his New Grist is distributed in 30 states and two Canadian provinces. He sells about $500,000 worth a year and sales are growing about 35% a year.
Sorghum beer has a slightly different flavor from normal beer, with a twang that some describe as "spicy citrusy." "If you ever have a Belgian beer, this is somewhat similar to a Belgian beer," Klisch says.
Brewers of gluten-free beers have until Jan. 1, 2012, to begin adding nutrition labels to their products, including a declaration of major food allergens, which includes wheat. That's the information people with celiac disease have been waiting for.
Up until now, they couldn't be certain that a beer that claimed to be gluten-free really was. Under FDA regulations, there's a standard for it.
Gluten-free beer makes up less than 0.1% of the beer market, says Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo. The biggest players in the gluten-free beer market are Anheuser-Busch's Red Bridge, Klisch's Lakefront in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Bard's Tale from Norwalk, Conn., he says.
Celiacs have been buying these gluten-free beers for years, says Elaine Monarch, executive director of the Celiac Disease Foundation in Studio City, Calif. But accurate labels will be nice and the new FDA regulations may make it easier for European gluten-free beverages to enter the market, she says.
The only bad news for the brewers is that the IRS doesn't care what this stuff is made from — it's still taxed like beer, at $18 a barrel.