Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Product Review: Omission Beer

There's a new beer in town, and its name is Omission. It's been around for a few months now, starting in Oregon and spreading in distribution since, but we've just managed to (finally) get our hands on some here in our corner of New York.

Omission is a line of beers marketed to the gluten-free community from the folks at Portland's popular Widmer Brothers brewery. Note that I said it's beer marketed to the gluten-free community, and not that it's gluten-free beer. This is an important distinction. Why? Because thanks to a recent TTB ruling, Omission isn't allowed to say that the beer is gluten-free.

That's because Omission is brewed with barley. This is a first for U.S. brewery. While such beers have been around in Europe for some time, American brewers making beer for the GF community have previously brewed only using gluten-free ingredients such as sorghum. Until now.

Omission starts with low-protein barley, and then employs a proprietary process—including the addition of Brewers Clarex, an enzyme originally cultivated for addressing chill haze, but which also has the convenient property of gobbling barley hordein—to further reduce the gluten levels in the beer.

The intention was to give gluten-free beer drinkers a brew that was effectively gluten-free, but which retained the classic taste of malted barley.

Two key questions come to the fore: Where they successful in making a tasty beer? Where they successful in making that beer effectively gluten-free despite using barley (plus water, hops, and yeast) as an ingredient?

I'll tackle the latter question first. As you may recall from late last year and early this year, the media, beer, and gluten-free communities were abuzz with disturbing information. Researchers had published the results of a study that showed that some beers—previously thought to be gluten-free or very low in gluten, and marketed as such—actually contained much higher levels of gluten than once thought. The offending beers were all so-called GF beers brewed from barley. Yikes.

Part of the problem came down to testing. When you brew beer, the gluten gets hydrolized (broken down into smaller protein fragments). And traditional tests for gluten, it turned out, were pretty poor at detecting those fragments, which still might be large enough to cause a reaction in sensitive people.

Fortunately, however, a new test method—the competitive R5 ELISA—has been developed, expressly for the purpose of detecting hydrolized gluten fragments. It's a huge step in the right direction, but the test is not without its limitations, and it still needs to be more rigorously evaluated. In the meantime, though, it's the best we have for the task at hand.

To Omission's credit, that's the test they're using to check every batch of beer they brew. And here's the really cool thing: you can go to their website, input the date code from the bottle of beer you're holding in your hand, and see the very test results for that batch. How awesome is that? I tried it. It works. It's one more way that the folks at Omission are a) showing gluten-free consumers they're serious about what they do, and b) delivering transparency that will ultimately foster consumer trust and confidence. Omission knows that selling a barley-based beer to a gluten-free beer drinking might be, well, a tough sell. So they say, Here. View the test results for yourself. Don't take our word for it. Maybe this will put your concerns to rest.

So is the beer effectively gluten-free? For now, we can't say with 100% certainty. But I can say this: I've read a lot of reports of celiacs and others in the GF community drinking the beer with no problems. I consider myself to be fairly sensitive, and after a pair of brews, I felt fine. However, I'm a sample size of one, so exercise your own best judgment.

And what about taste?

On that measure, I have to consider this only a partial review. Omission offers two beers: a lager and a pale ale. Our local market was all out of the pale ale, so for the moment I've only had a chance to try the lager.

Boy, was it a disappointment. I know some have praised it, but I'm not in that group. My immediate gut reaction was to compare it to Beast (aka Milwaukee's Best, a cheap, arguably lousy, beer). The beer had fabulous, foamy head retention ... as good as you'll see on a beer for someone who's gluten-free. But the flavor left much to be desired, malted barley or not. I also shared the beer with some gluten-ous beer drinkers who like brews such as Amstel and Heineken, light lagers like Omission. They were similarly displeased with it.

Maybe my tastes in beer have changed over time. I know I like hoppy beers, and dark beers, and such. And when I finally have a chance to sample the pale ale, in all its Cascade hops glory, I may love it. But if my choice was between an Omission lager and something such as New Planet's Off Grid Pale Ale or Bard's or a homebrew, I'll take any of the later over Omission.

Have you tried it? What's your take on it?

Bottoms up!



pen said...

I live in Spain where we have had barley-brewed gluten free beers available for some time. I've tried Estrella Damm Daura and Ambar. The former is too thin and bitter for me but the latter is very drinkable, to the extent that I have problems keeping the non-coeliac members of the family away from it...

Sophia said...

Thanks for posting this review. While I am glad there are so many more options, I am re-thinking the inclusion of these barley based beers based on the difficulty in testing these beers gluten content. I hope more gluten free folks are aware of this. I loved the barley based Spanish gluten free beer, but will enjoy the non barley based beers now, for my health. I always appreciate your opinions.

Mad Dr said...

Estrella Damm Daura claims to use the same ELISA as Omission... I got totally sick from Estrella... Not going to touch Omission. I've also seen many complaints on the internet of it making celiacs sick.

rushpuppy said...

wish you could have tried the pale. it's fantastic. i agree that the lager is pretty bad.

peterbronski said...

Hi Pen,

I've heard of Ambar but don't believe I've tried it. I'll have to see if I can find it to sample!

Hi Sophia,

Yes, this is certainly something for folks to be educated about, so they can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to drink this type of beer.

Hi Mad Dr,

Thanks for adding your perspective.