If you've been scrutinizing your beer labels lately (and come on, who isn't?!), then you may have noticed a recent change: some beers—such as Bard's, Redbridge, and New Planet—continue to be labeled as "gluten-free" beers, while others—including Estrella Damm Daura and Omission—have dropped "gluten-free" from their labeling. Why? Has their gluten status changed? As you might imagine, there's a back story, and things aren't exactly black and white.
The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) historically has regulated wine, distilled spirits, and malt beverages (which includes traditional beer). When gluten-free beers first started coming to the market in the United States, they fell into a nether-region of regulation. They were "beer" and contained alcohol, but they were brewed from sorghum and other gluten-free ingredients, which meant they weren't classified as malt beverages (which are made from barley and other gluten-containing grains). And so, in 2009 the TTB and FDA reached an agreement for gluten-free beers to be regulated by FDA and its labeling requirements (which is why today a bottle of Bard's or New Planet will have both a nutrition info panel and ingredients listing, unlike "regular" beers).
Then things got complicated. Beers such as Estrella Damm Daura and the latest addition, Omission, are another beast: they're brewed from barley (and thus still considered "real" beer and regulated by TTB, not FDA), but they're processed to remove gluten and make claims about their low-gluten content or theoretical gluten-free status. This prompted TTB to issue an interim guidance document late last month that governs how manufacturers can and can't use "gluten-free" labeling claims in association with their products. It applies to wines, distilled spirits, and malt beverages, including beer, though it seems to have gotten the most attention in the beer world.
In the document, the TTB notes a) that the FDA is still working on making its own gluten-free labeling standard official, and b) the need exists for better, more accurate, and more reliable gluten testing for fermented beverages such as beer. (To wit, earlier this year researchers revealed results of a study that found that certain so-called gluten-free beers brewed from barley had significantly higher gluten content than previously thought.)
In light of these concerns, TTB has taken a surprising—and admirably conservative—approach. Alcoholic beverages may only bear the "gluten-free" claim if three criteria are met: 1) they use only gluten-free ingredients (such as wine from grapes, vodka from potatoes, or beer from sorghum), 2) take steps to prevent cross-contamination, and 3) use no additives, yeasts, or storage materials that would introduce gluten.
Meanwhile, what about these other beers, such as Estrella Damm Daura and Omission? According to TTB, they may say that their beers are "processed or treated or crafted to remove gluten," but they can't say they're gluten-free. And they must include a declaration that the product is made from a gluten-containing grain, that testing protocols may not be adequate, and that the product may contain gluten (whether it actually does or not).
Once the FDA makes its GF labeling standard official—and as new tests for gluten in fermented alcoholic beverages come online—TTB plans to revisit its guidance document. In the meantime, as gluten-free consumers it's important to note that nothing about the beverages in question has changed. What has changed is how they're permitted to be labeled. Whether your brew of choice is a gluten-free beer made from gluten-free grains, or one made from barley but with the gluten removed, stay educated. The more you know...