Q&A: Duck Foot Elevates Gluten-Reduced Beer Into the Craft Category

Matt DelVecchio faced an unexpected problem while looking into launching a microbrewery in 2012. He was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. Suddenly, this beer lover couldn’t drink one without becoming seriously sick.

For some, this would be a sign to pick a different project. For DelVecchio, of the entrepreneurial spirit, he turned this setback into the search for a solution. Plenty of people with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivities still like beer. But the gluten-reduced options weren’t exactly the most palatable bunch.

Because the primary way to produce low-gluten beer is with sorghum, which significantly affects the body and flavor. In seeking alternatives, DelVecchio met and partnered with longtime brewer Brett Goldstock. The result is the San Diego-based Duck Foot Brewing Company.

Since their taproom opened last June, the brewery is now bottling and shipping out bombers of its gluten-reduced beer — including to some Whole Foods locations. I recently spoke with DelVecchio and Goldstock about their product.

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Matt DelVecchio.

BD: How did you work around the sorghum issue?
MD: There’s this enzyme that slices up the gluten protein chain. Another brewery was already using it, Omission. They had come out with a lager, a pale ale and an IPA. Those were the first beers I had after being diagnosed that actually tasted like beer. Beers made with sorghum do not taste like beer, because they don’t use the same ingredients. They’re light in body and really bitter. I call them ‘beer-like beverages’.

So the people at Omission figured out how to do it without sorghum. They’re true pioneers. But being a craft beer-lover, I realized that I couldn’t go through my whole life just drinking only this brewery and its few styles.

BG: We felt like we had discovered a good niche. We felt like we could fill in the gaps by making these beers in all styles. We’ve since made beers in about 30-40 different styles. All the beer recipes we’ve tried have eventually worked. That includes big, heavy imperial stouts. Our Ukraine Stout has a huge grain bill, is 11% ABV, and is still gluten-free.

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Brett Goldstock.

We did have some trouble with beers with heavier wheat content like German Hefeweizen or Belgian Witbier. We found that we had to make some changes to the traditional methods to make those work.

MD: We’ve had people with Celiac Disease drink our beers and then cry, because they haven’t had a good beer in so long.

BD: Your bottles say ‘gluten-reduced’, not ‘gluten-free’. Why is that?
BG: The tests used to measure gluten content do not go below 10 parts per million. So there could be no gluten in our beer, or there could be only a little bit. There’s no way to tell. The FDA came out with a rule a couple years ago that says anything under 20 parts per million could be labeled as gluten free. But the federal bureau for alcohol says that you cannot do that for beer. So we’d love to say that our beer is gluten free, but the government will not allow it.

MD: It’s especially hard for me to say our beer is just ‘gluten-reduced’ because I have Celiac Disease and would get really sick if I ingested any gluten. And I have never gotten sick off of our beer.

BG: We probably serve more people with Celiac Disease than any other taproom in the country. And we have never had any negative responses from people. Nobody has ever gotten sick. Anyone with gluten sensitivities can come into our taproom and drink all of our beers. It’s completely safe.

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The Duck Foot taproom in San Diego, CA.

BD: You recently began bottling three beers: a west coast IPA, chocolate hazelnut porter and a California blonde ale.
BG: We bottled out top three sellers. (On any given day we have 12 beers on tap in our taproom.) And so far the response has been awesome. We put our beers out there and hoped that people would like the packaging, as well as the beer in the bottles. We got a couple of orders right off the bat. A week later, one customer called back saying that they already wanted more.

MD: Whole Foods picked us up right after that. Pretty soon we should be available in the San Diego market. Then we’re going to try to really get out beer out there. Our goal is to be a national brand.

BD: How big is the population of people with Celiac Disease who also want to drink craft beer?
MD: Well, traditionally it’s said that 1% of the U.S. population has Celiac Disease. But there’s definitely a growing trend of people living a gluten-free lifestyle. That dietary trend is increasing the market size. We have a pretty packed taproom on a regular basis. We can fit 50 people in here.

BD: What’s next for Duck Foot?
BG: That Ukraine Stout is coming out soon. (We made it when Russia was having issues with Ukraine, and decided to name it after Ukraine.) So are some limited-edition barrel-aged releases. These beers have already aged 6 months in Heaven Hill barrels, and by release time will be a little bit more.

Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com and follow him on Twitter at @kswartzz.

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