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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gluten-Free, But Full of Other Stuff?

File this under "Hmmmm." My post on the Omission line of gluten-free beers elicited comments worth bumping up to main posts. First off, Thornbridge's Dominic linked to a product listing for a foam stabilizer in response to my "how does a gluten-free beer form a head?" question. A little cheeky, but probably correct--foam stabilizers are pretty common. Then came this, from an anonymous commenter:
Dominic is close, but not quite right. I hate to post anonymously, but I know what Widmer is using in this product. The "science" is franken-science. The means of gluten reduction is via the addition of enzymes, which, according to the product's documentation, "in the producing micro-organism genes naturally present in the micro-organism have been multiplied using biotechnological techniques". Using genetically manipulated products in a "craft beer" isn't what craft is all about in my book. And the gluten free community isn't one to engage blissfully with GMOs, so I'll stick with "clean" beers for now.
It's unfair to credit an anonymous commenter as a source on anything, so I shot Widmer Brothers an email. Brady Walen responded this way:
You're not alone in wanting to know more about our process. While we're not currently revealing all details about the Omission program and brewing process, we can confirm that we are not using "hundreds of lab technicians dissecting malt grains and tweezing gluten molecules." That said, I also wanted to address the previous comment from Anynomous regarding GMOs: under definitions accepted by the US Government, Omission beers do not contain genetically modified organisms and are not brewed with genetically modified organisms. We do have plans to share additional details about the Omission program the coming weeks, which will help clarify similar questions and others that we’ve received since we launched Omission in Oregon, so stay tuned for those.
The plot thickens. It never occurred to me to ask what was added to the beer to replace that which was taken out. I think it's a perfectly reasonable question, but it looks like we'll have to wait to learn more. Caveat emptor. Perhaps rumors of millet beer's death were premature.

Your thoughts?


  1. Widmer should be more transparent about their process. This makes them, to me, sound like a macrobrewery. I'll continue to support Harvester.

  2. I'll be interested to see what Widmer reveals. The answers may help explain the stealth branding on the Omission labels and packaging.

  3. Now, it's tough to parse statements based on merely two paragraphs, but it seems to me that Widmer may be involved in selective breeding to enhance the specific enzyme content they need to break down gluten. This means that they are not, as they point out, technically considered "GMOs". Selective breeding has been around for thousands of years. It looks like "Anonymous" took a statement referring to selective breeding and spun it in his own head into "GMO".

    Just my two cents, anyway. Given that Widmer was very specific to point out that they are not "GMO" according to the US government definition suggests to me that they're not doing any direct DNA manipulation (i.e. inserting/removing genes, etc). But that doesn't mean that they're not involved in an older, more traditional form of genetic manipulation.

    Personally I've got no problem with it. If they can make good gluten-free beer for the folks that have gluten allergies (a coworker I know had to quit homebrewing when he learned he was gluten-intolerant), I call that a win. If it took direct genetic modification of the DNA to insert genes producing these enzymes, I still wouldn't have a problem with it. But I'm not quite as snooty as some craft beer drinkers...

  4. There are other proteins in barley that support the head and there are other grains/legumes that have proteins (not gluten) with the right characteristics to create a healthy foam. Worked some with peas to get a nice head, but pea beer seemed to dificult to launch. Of course there are hop extracts (like tetrahydro) that improve head, and there are saponins from certains barks that also give a good head. All GMO free ways to work head into a "gluten-free" beer.

    Of course a great person to to bug on head for gluten free would be Charlie Bamforth, I'm sure there are lots of ways to skin the cat.

  5. I'm really glad that hear that GMOs aren't going into Omission because I really like the beer. I'm not impressed with Anonymous comments but that's just my two cents. Thanks, Jeff, for going straight to the source to get the facts.

  6. I'm not sure the labeling is all that stealth. The "W" logo is quite prominent on the six-pack box.

    I certainly agree that "using enzymes" does not equate to "using GMOs", as Brad points out. I suspect the yeast that goes into all of our favorites beers has undergone way more selective breeding, and nobody seems to complain about that.

  7. Good stuff, most of which I tend to agree with. Brewing beer is not the process of assembling whole foods, and I may be a little insensitive to some of the processes that worry others. There's a huge amount of chemistry going on--even in uber-traditional breweries like Cantillon--and we shouldn't immediately be panicked. Of course, transparency is always a great thing. We'll look forward to hearing more from Widmer.