From Hobby to Incorporation to Supply Chain Struggles

Home brewing had not only become a new hobby, I found I had developed an unanticipated passion for it. To further fuel that passion was my desire (dare I say obsession?) to create a gluten free beer of the highest possible quality.

Having struggled to produce a drinkable beer using sorghum, I researched alternative gluten free grains to see what other viable options existed. Millet, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, teff – the list went on and on. Figuring that each grain could impart something unique to both my brewing process and my finished product, I was optimistic that it was only a matter of time until I landed on the perfect combination of ingredients for my recipe. So, I ran down to my local natural food store and picked up 5 pounds of every gluten free grain I could find.

All the reading I’d been doing taught me that brewing with the raw grain alone would not contribute any fermentable sugars to the beer. The grain had to be malted (essentially soaked in water, allowed to partially sprout and then dried). Malting the grain optimizes the enzymes needed to convert starch to fermentable sugar. Additionally, after drying the malt, you can toast it to a wide spectrum of darker colors, each imparting a unique flavor to the finished beer: caramel, toffee, nut, chocolate, coffee.

I had a sufficient level of knowledge and felt that I was headed in the right direction. I had a system and a plan to start malting and roasting my own gluten free grains (albeit, only 5 pounds at a time). I was confident that the creation of a quality beer was just around the corner.

I continued to tinker with malting grains in my kitchen and brewing my recipe in the garage. As time went on, I benefited from many hard-learned lessons which no doubt continue to serve me well on this adventure, among them: proper sanitation of brewing equipment is critical, brewing beer is both art and science, and never, ever leave a boiling kettle unattended.

After much trial and error, blood, sweat, and tears, I found that I was at a point where my recipe consistently produced a beer that was not just drinkable, but was undeniably flavorful and satisfying to those adventurous souls who dared to try something a little different. However, fearing that my family, close friends and I were not the most objective judges of my beer, I began distributing samples more widely, requesting feedback and inquiring about specific areas that could be improved, as there is no shortage of characteristics that go into producing a quality craft beer. I’d ask questions like – Does enough malt flavor come through? Is it too bitter? Not bitter enough? How is the mouthfeel, balance, aroma, finish, clarity? Feedback was overwhelmingly positive and people were very surprised to learn that my beer was gluten free. Coincidentally, around this time, awareness of the gluten free diet was beginning to grow. I realized that not only could I fulfill a personal desire for quality gluten free beer, but I could produce my recipe on a larger scale so as to satisfy the increasing demand in an expanding marketplace.

And with that, Alpenglow Beer Company was created!

That was when I really got down to work. And the first hurdle I had to overcome was a big one. Where was I going to procure my main ingredient, gluten free malt? Clearly, malting 5 pounds at a time in my kitchen was not realistic or efficient on a large scale, especially since my recipe was for a golden-brown amber ale, which required that a large portion of the malt be of a medium to dark roast. I called a handful of the largest malters in the US and Canada to see if they would be willing to malt a sample for me. Unfortunately, the response I received from each was the same – a resounding “no”. I then happened upon a micro-malter in Reno who had a great set up – he even had his system powered by solar energy – but unfortunately he was not equipped to roast malt at that time. Additionally, he could not guarantee that there would be no cross-contamination from the barley malt that he predominately ran through his system.

I then found a food and beverage co-manufacturer in Northern California that appeared to have every piece of equipment all under one roof and claimed to be able to do everything under the sun. I was optimistic but unfortunately, despite their best efforts, none of the samples they provided seemed to work out. Their process did not allow for adequate aeration during germination which resulted in the development of mold. The approach they devised for combating the mold issue was labor-intensive (and imperfect). Finally, their drying and roasting process utilized a microwave oven that heated the malt too quickly and aggressively. I appreciated their ingenuity and that they shared my passion, but in the end their product was just not to the specifications I needed.

My ongoing search for a malter then led me to a family-run company based in Sioux Center, Iowa. They sprouted seeds and grains to produce unique flours and baby cereal. After much conversation, I was able to convince them that the sprouting process they were using closely resembled the malting process that I needed. They supplied me with samples for a few months as I diligently tried to make their product work in my recipe. I enjoyed working with these folks – and appreciated their enthusiasm around what I was trying to do – but unfortunately, this supplier was not going to work for me either. They were unable to roast the malt and there were cross-contamination concerns.

It was right around this time that I sent an e-mail to Charlie Bamforth, a professor of malting and brewing sciences just up the road at UC Davis. Charlie is a highly-respected authority in the world of beer and an author of entertaining and informative books related to his discipline. In my e-mail, I explained what I was attempting to do and unabashedly solicited feedback and direction as to how I could best do it. Now, Charlie is a busy man, and my initial correspondence no doubt came across as a bit desperate in nature. These two facts combined told me not to hold my breath for a response. To my surprise, the very next day an e-mail from him appeared in my inbox. He not only responded favorably, he suggested we meet the following week when he would be in the area giving a talk at a local brewery.

We did meet that week. And the conversation Charlie and I had over a cup of coffee turned out to be pivotal in the development of my gluten free beer. The wheels were most certainly in motion.

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Humble Home Brewing Beginnings

As I wandered into Berkeley’s Oak Barrel home brew store for the first time, admiring the floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with shiny equipment and unique ingredients, I was both overwhelmed and excited to be pursuing this new hobby. After meandering for a bit, enjoying the smell of fragrant hops (what are hops?) and yeast that filled the air, Bernie, the amiable owner, approached and directed me to a beginner’s home brewing kit. Included in the kit was John Palmer’s “How to Brew” which, over the years, I have probably read through at least 15 times.

Since I was attempting to brew a gluten free beer, I was not able to use any of the readily available, barley-based malts or syrups. In my first few batches I used a hard-to-find, concentrated, sorghum syrup as the source of my fermentable sugars. Since the gluten free beers I had tried at that time had all utilized sorghum, I figured that was the logical thing to do.

After pouring the syrup into the boiling water, I added bittering hops to balance out the sweetness. In the last few minutes of the boil, I threw in a pinch of fragrant aroma hops to impart a clean, citrusy aroma to the finished beer.

After cooling the beer in my bathtub (which I had filled with ice), I transferred it to a five gallon, glass carboy fermenter and added some ale yeast. I had read that the ideal conditions for fermentation were a dark, temperature-stable location where the carboy would not be disturbed. In our small home with 2 cats and 1 dog, I figured the best spot would be in our linen/coat/utility/storage closet, with a beach towel placed under the carboy to insulate it from the cold hardwood floors.

As fermentation week progressed, the ale yeast would wildly bubble, indicating that it was consuming the fermentable sugar and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. I peered in upon my little science experiment several times a day, each time slowly opening the closet door as if I were trying to avoid waking a sleeping animal. Amidst the cool darkness, I could smell the sweet, bread-y aroma resulting from the rhythmically burping bubbles of carbon dioxide being released from the carboy.

After fermentation, I transferred my concoction into bottles, affixing a gold cap atop each. Another week or two later, I pulled a bottle out of the refrigerator, pried off the cap and was elated to hear the familiar sound of a well-carbonated beverage. It sounded like beer, sort of smelled like beer and I was really, really hoping it tasted like beer. As I took my first sip, I found myself holding the cool, carbonated beverage in my mouth, waiting for the taste and mouthfeel to introduce themselves. It never happened. What I had produced in my first attempt was a sweet, bitter, low alcohol, thin-bodied beverage that more closely resembled a poorly made cider than a delicious craft beer.

I was down but I wasn’t out. Not yet. I knew I could do better.

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Going GF & Desperately Seeking Suds

It started with a decision I made in 2006. I was chatting with a dear friend who had recently switched to a gluten free diet. Many of the symptoms she was describing prior to adopting the new diet were things that I, too, experienced yet had just accepted as normal. Our conversation got me thinking, and I committed to a two-week trial to determine if a gluten free approach was something that made sense for me.

Within just a few days of taking gluten off my plate, I felt noticeably better. When I embarked on the trial diet, I naively thought that it would be pretty easy to follow. But as I educated myself on what exactly gluten is (a protein found in wheat and related grains) and in which types of foods it is found (most everything I loved to eat and drink), I discovered that one of my biggest vices, a staple as far as I was concerned, was now off limits…BEER!

Barley, wheat and rye were the first three items identified on a list of things to avoid when following a gluten free diet. Each of these grains contain the gluten protein and, unfortunately for me, plays a critical role in the production of beer. What it boiled down to was that all of the delicious craft beers I had enjoyed up to that point would no longer be an option for me.

I understand that this might not seem like too big of a deal to some folks, but for me, enjoying a refreshing beer with family and friends plays a big part in my quality of life. After a day at the beach, exploring a new trail, or après ski, nothing caps off a fun day like a delicious beer. I was pretty discouraged as I imagined sitting quietly, hands in my pockets, while everyone else savored their favorite beer, embellishing the day’s events around a campfire.

Early on, and perhaps suffering from a bit of denial, I would occasionally fall off the wagon and indulge in my favorite beverage. But when I did, my body made me acutely aware of how ingesting any quantity of gluten was no longer a good idea. I came to the harsh reality that I was going to need to find the next best thing to my beloved craft beer.

To my surprise, and providing a brief sigh of relief, in 2006 there were a few options of gluten free beer commercially available. How was that possible? How can you make beer without malted barley, wheat or rye? My interest was piqued. I bought a few bottles and toasted my fortuitous discovery. Then I took my first sip.

The beers left me very unsatisfied. They lacked body, flavor and aroma. Where I wanted a beautiful, white foamy head spilling over the top of the glass (queue: any TV beer commercial), there was none. Where I expected a pleasantly sweet, malty flavor, there was a strange bitterness in its place. And where I anticipated a subtle, crisp bitterness lingering at the end, inviting me back for another sip, I tasted an astringent, almost medicinal finish that lingered far too long.

I was disappointed, but in equal measure, I was curious. I imagined there had to be a way to brew a quality gluten free beer that exhibited the great flavor, appearance and aroma of the craft beers with which I could no longer stock my refrigerator.

I decided to take matters into my own hands … and thus began my home brewing adventure.

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