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The Next Big Little Niche

Well I’ve known it’s been coming for a while now and have been sitting on it, because I’ve been researching a story about gluten-free beers. Today, Miller’s BrewBlog broke the story that Anheuser-Busch is readying a gluten-free beer for the market.

From the BrewBlog:

The brewer [A-B] on July 31 filed a brand label registration with the state of Missouri for a product called Red Bridge Sorghum beer. A-B previously had filed a trademark application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

A-B appears intent on jumping on a small bandwagon of brewers making beer with sorghum instead of barley. The dominant industry leader already has demonstrated its commitment to attacking tiny niches by rolling out organic beers.

Beers made with sorghum can be consumed by people with a condition called celiac disease. Exposure to gluten — a protein found in barley — triggers digestive problems in people with the disease.

Several craft brewers currently produce gluten-free beers. Unfortunately, because of ridiculously puritanical labeling restrictions that forbid any health claims on alcohol labels along with the fact the FDA has been criminally slow to adopt any standard of what gluten-free means (Europe by contrast has had a standard in place for years), they can’t really be labeled as gluten-free. Here’s a sample of gluten-free beers currently available from U.S. craft brewers:

In addition, brewers in Australia, Belgium, France, Italy and the United Kingdom are all producing gluten-free beers. The gluten-free seminar at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference was surprisingly well-attended. When I queried several brewers there, I got the same response from all of them. “We get a lot of customers asking about this.

My interest in these beers comes originally from my son, Porter, who is autistic. In reading about Autism Spectrum Disorder, I’ve discovered that a common symptom among the constellation of autistic indicators is stomach problems and often times a gluten-free diet helps immensely. Like much about autism, scientists and doctors aren’t exactly sure why this happens but I’m glad so far Porter doesn’t show signs of having this problem. But there are also millions of Celiac sufferers worldwide, and the number is growing. People with celiac disease, likewise, must also abstain from gluten, a part of most grains like barley and wheat. One out of every 133 people in the U.S. has celiac disease.

Here’s a short description of celiac disease from the Celiac Disease Foundation:

A lifelong autoimmune intestinal disorder, found in individuals who are genetically susceptible. Damage to the mucosal surface of the small intestine is caused by an immunologically toxic reaction to the ingestion of gluten and interferes with the absorption of nutrients. Celiac Disease (CD) is unique in that a specific food component, gluten, has been identified as the trigger. Gluten is the common name for the offending proteins in specific cereal grains that are harmful to persons with CD. These proteins are found in all forms of wheat (including durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, einkorn, and faro), and related grains, rye, barley, and triticale and must be eliminated.

It seems obvious to me that this is the next big small niche beer. I know that last statement was oxymoronic, but hear me out. Gluten-free beers aren’t going to be as popular as light beer or even porters, but with 1-in-133 Americans with celiac disease combined with thousands, perhaps millions, of autistic kids on gluten-free diets who will begin reaching the age of majority in the coming years, and you’ve got a sizable little market that’s likely to emerge. Now that A-B is entering this market, more attention will surely be focused on it. And A-B, regardless of anything else you can say about them, doesn’t take any action without first having thoroughly researched, tested and studied the market. So look for many more gluten-free beers in the market soon.

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