Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shifting Sands

Yesterday's post about the gluten-free beers as The Alchemist pub and brewery in Waterbury, Vermont is a great example of the shifting sands of gluten-free products. The "Old Guard" - in this case, beers such as RedBridge, New Grist, and company - has been upstaged by a "newcomer."  In this context, you might call the Alchemist a game changer, a new standard, a reviser of expectations, or a mover of the target.  This is a decidedly good thing.

Sometimes, we adjust our expectations for lack of choice in gluten-free foods, or we lower our expectations to meet what is currently available, since "something" is better than "nothing."  And sometimes, when enough time passes with us eating "lowered expectation" foods, we forget what "the good stuff" tastes like.  In this sense, we've recalibrated what "normal" is (the same way I recalibrated what normal was for my body after years of being sick... until I was suddenly healthy on the gluten-free diet more than three years ago and remembered what normal really was).

Then, someone like John Kimmich comes along and upsets the pecking order.  His beers are charting new territory for GF brews.  Less than 24 hours after tasting his Celia Saison and Celia Framboise, I knocked back a bottle of RedBridge.  And to be honest, it suddenly left a lot to be desired.  I hesitate to call it "undrinkable," but whereas before I would be content to enjoy a few bottles, I was now more than happy to stop at one bottle.  The flavor didn't invite me to enjoy another; not the way Kimmich's beer did. 

More recently, my brother- and sister-in-law and their family visited us in Colorado.  One night we all went out for pizza for dinner.  The pizzeria happened to serve New Planet gluten-free beer, and - curious to see if my RedBridge experience would be repeated in the wake of the Alchemist - I ordered a bottle to do an updated review.  When I poured the bottle into a pint glass, it held no more or less head than my home brew.  The nose and the flavor both had very strong tastes of apple and citrus (not what I'd expect in a pale ale).  It was more like drinking a beer-like hard cider, or a hoppy, effervescent apple wine, than it was like drinking a true beer.  My tasting notes included the word "disappointing."

But when I reviewed New Planet here on NGNP a little while back, I mostly had positive things to say.  What had changed?  Certainly nothing about the beer itself.  Rather, the landscape of GF beer had changed, thanks in very large part to Kimmich and the Alchemist.  

On the one hand, this creates a dilemma for me as a reviewer.  What do I do about all the beer reviews I've previously written?  I feel like I have to go back and include an asterisk at the end of each post.  It also creates a dilemma for other gluten-free brewers.  RedBridge, New Planet, New Grist and the like are faced with steep competition.  They can respond in one of two ways - maintain their status quo, or improve their beer to stay on the leading edge of quality and taste.  Those that adhere to the former won't last for long, and those that adhere to the latter are a benefit to us GF beer drinkers.  When someone like Kimmich comes along and changes the rules of the game, other companies are forced to follow suit, and our GF beer-drinking taste buds can be very thankful for it.

And now, a question for you: What companies or products have been game changers for you?  Maybe a local GF bakery, or a pasta, or whatever.  But let us know who's setting the standard for you in the gluten-free world!

- Pete


ItMakesYouSmile said...

Game changer for me: Udi's Bread. Just had it last weekend, and it felt like I was eating the "real" bread at the table, meant for the non-GF consumers. Oh, my! I don't know what the secret of it is, but I want to find out.

Thank you for your beer articles. Since going GF beer is really the only thing I pine for. I'm a half-a-glass kinda gal, and so quality of taste is really important to me.

gfpumpkins said...

I actually have to disagree with you slightly. While I do think this new beer could change the face (flavor?) of GF beer, the simple fact that you can only get it at the brewery means very few people will get to try it. So these other breweries have little to fear (right now at least) and little incentive to reformulate their recipes.

Brian from Bard's said...

Try Bard's Beer. It's a craft beer developed by celiacs that wanted the taste of a traditional craft beer. Only Bard's malts the sorghum for traditional flavor and aroma in a gluten-free beer. Bard's was first on the market and is now in 41 states. Go to to find Bard's near you.

peterbronski said...

Hey ItMakesYouSmile... Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Udi's is pretty fabulous, and deservedly gets lot of praise. I certainly agree!

Hey GFPumpins... You bring up a very valid point; one that I thought about writing about in the post. The limited availability of Alchemist beer (only at the brewery) does mean that GF beer elsewhere in the country doesn't face Alchemist as a direct competitor. But I still think Alchemist is pushing boundaries, primarily in two ways (beyond the beer itself): 1) they've shown it's possible, and that GF beer drinkers don't have to "settle." If Alchemist can do it, in theory other GF beers can, too. And 2) Alchemist has garnered some of the most prestigious awards in the beer world - gold at both the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. Beers like RedBridge and New Grist have historically occupied those slots, but they've recently been knocked off the top. They'll likely want to regain their stature and accolades, and to do that, they'll have to improve their beer as a result.

Hi Brian... Thanks for chiming in. Glad to hear Bard's is now in 41 states. Within my GF circle, beer drinkers have had a mixed reaction. I personally prefer Bard's to RedBridge, but others have had a different opinion. In the near future, I'm planning a blind GF beer tasting, and I think that will be very (honestly) revealing about how the different GF beers stack up against one another.

Cheers, Pete

Gaile said...

Hi Peter, I gotta agree with gfpumpkins. Unless I can get it, the game is the same for me. I prefer New Grist to Red Bridge, but at nearly $10 for 6, it's only a special occasion item for me. DeChutes here in Portland has a gf beer on tap, but again I can only get it if we go there, and that's an infrequent indulgence for me. I too didn't like Bards. Nor did I like the Leinenkugels Banana Sorghum african beer thing that a friend sent me last year.

I wish I could get Udi's bread here. Until then, I bake my own. That was a game changer for me. :)

amberem said...

Definitely Tinkyada pasta. It is leaps and bounds above many others that I've tasted. Even my non gluten-free boyfriend eats it happily! Also, I think Udi's frozen pizza crusts are delicious, and Whole Foods GF brownie mix stands above all others I've tried.

peterbronski said...

Hi Gaile... Thanks for sharing your perspective! Again, you (and gfpumpkins) both make a good point. It's interesting to see people's different tastes with GF beer...some like RedBridge, some New Grist, some Bard's. I'd love to see some of the micro and craft breweries - such as Deschutes and Alchemist - start offering their beer more widely. And I'm totally with you on the home-baked bread!

Hi Amberem... we love Tinkyada pasta! That and the Schar spaghetti. They're excellent, and definitely better than the rest.

Cheers, Pete

MelMM said...

Most recent game-changer for me has been Le Veneziane pasta. By far the best I've tasted and I've tasted a lot of them. I've been gf for 8 years now, and over that time the pasta brands have come and gone. But I never have understood why so many people like Tinkyada. Just the instructions on the package make me cringe. One package instructed to boil for 16 minutes! And then rinse in cold water, something any self-respecting Italian cookbook will tell you never to do. Cooked that long, the pasta is mush. Even cooked in a more reasonable manner, the texture is not up to snuff for me.

My question to the Tinkyada fans out there is, have you tried the Italian brands that you have to mail order? Like Le Veneziane or Bi-Aglut? Tinkyada may be OK compared to the really awful brands available in the average supermarket, but compared to these imports it just doesn't stack up. I guess there is a question of personal preference, and how you liked your pasta before being g.f.

Beer wise... when I was diagnosed there was no gluten-free beer with wide distribution. Now in my town I can get four brands: Redbridge, New Grist, Bard's and Green's from Belgium (in several styles). All very different, and I am so grateful to have them. Bard's is my favorite, but they all have a time and a place.

peterbronski said...

Hi Mel... Thanks for sharing your input, especially about the imported pastas. In some ways, it comes back around to some of the other commenters' thoughts about the Alchemist - if the pasta isn't widely available, or difficult to get (because you must mail order rather than go to the supermarket) does that affect their ability to be a game changer? I'm not sure...

Cheers, Pete