Small innovative brewers under threat from explosion in gluten-free beer market

Sue Cane is worried that they may not survive.


Guten-free beers awaiting tasting at a FreeFrom Food Awards judging session.

Spare a thought today for Inspiral, makers of raw, plant based, organic, gluten-free food – they’re closing. (See Michelle's blog here.) Their high quality, specialised products are expensive to produce and the rise in price of raw materials because of Brexit has finished off this small business.

Without the innovation of companies like Inspiral (and many others) constantly pushing boundaries with new products for the allergy and intolerance community, none of us would benefit from the variety of FF food we can buy today.

Take kale chips. Other producers now make budget versions of the snack Inspiral invented six years ago. They’re not organic, or raw, but contain similar ingredients and, crucially, are much cheaper.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s still a shame when a small, ethical company that once lead the way with clever new products simply vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Will brewers be affected?

Reports in The Grocer that GF-beer sales have doubled to over £10 million in the last year – a rise of over 122% – signals a threat to the small number of tiny, specialist companies who brew beer from naturally GF ingredients. Made for a niche market, it won’t take much for this beer to be drowned out by a tidal wave of GF beer made from barley.

As more and more brewers use an enzyme during production that makes ordinary beer gluten free, and have it tested and certified as such, it’s flooding the market. As it gains shelf space, it begins to threaten the very existence of beer that’s naturally GF.

With over four-hundred varieties of GF beer now available, spare a thought for these breweries who make beer without any barley at all. You can count them on the fingers of one hand: Autumn Brewing, Burnt Mill, Driftwood Spars, Green's and St Peter's.

Their beers are hard to find, and are rarely seen in pubs (apart from the aptly-named Unexpected, which can be drunk in the brewery’s own pub in Cornwall). Containing zero gluten-grains, they are tricky to make and rely on a knowledge of ingredients and experience that most brewers do not have. Brought to market specifically for coeliacs, they have the advantage of standing firmly outside the contentious area of de-glutenised ordinary beer.

Naturally GF beers like these are expensive to brew. They rely on imported grains and hops and, with the exception of St Peters, Burnt Mill and Driftwood Spars – who also make ordinary beer – neither of the others has the advantage of its own production facilities to keep down costs. Small-scale production is not cheap, and without a supply-chain of pubs, restaurants and retailers who already sell the brewery’s other products, getting on shelves is increasingly difficult.

These are beers for a small market – though they’re enjoyed by people avoiding gluten or barley for reasons other than CD, plus a number who simply prefer the taste or think them healthier than normal beer.

Whatever the reason people drink them, their total sales as a percentage of the barley-based  GF-beer-market is tiny. The great explosion of gluten-free beer in the UK is wonderful, but I do worry that by the time the lifestyle GF-market has dwindled, and mainstream brewers are no longer interested in paying extra for testing and declaring their barley-beer GF, there simply won’t be any naturally GF beer left.

August 2018