HAVING an owner with gluten intolerance has led 9 White Deer Brewery to a niche in the market that the company are rapidly making their own.
The Ballyvourney brewery is the creation of two men, former marine engineer Gordon Lucey and publican Don O’Leary.
Gordon used his engineering skills to design and build their stainless steel nano-brewery and is also the one who designs their recipes and supervises the brewing. Meanwhile, Don, who owns The Mills Inn in Ballyvourney, works to get their product out to the industry.
Don is also among the growing number of Irish people who either have coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance. As many as 1% of Irish people suffer from the condition, unable to consume wheat, rye or barley.
He is a hero to his fellow sufferers as, following the success of a single gluten-free beer, in 2017 the brewery brought out a whole range of gluten-free beers, including a stout and an IPA.
“We have continued the theme of gluten-free and we are still alone in that area of the market,” Gordon told the Evening Echo.
“It has been very good for us. Earlier in the year, we brought out the full range of five gluten-free beers, the first such range in Europe.
“Just last month we launched Ireland’s first nitro-stout — a draught gluten-free stout — which a lot of people said couldn’t be done. But we did it. We launched that down in Cronin’s in Crosshaven and it has gone from strength to strength.”
Reaction to the range has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It is really good, We have had stories of people who, like the rest of us, used to enjoy a few pints, and they then got diagnosed with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance,” he explained.
“The emails alone that we get in are just so nice, thanking us for doing what we do.”
He said the range is popular with people who just prefer to avoid the ingredient, as well as coeliacs who must eliminate it from their diets entirely. It has given them back a choice they thought was gone.
“You have coeliacs who just can’t touch it altogether and their choices can be negligible. They had maybe one type of beer or cider, wine and spirits. If you like beer, it was a case of one only and that would have to do you.”
Stag Saor Stout is a hit with drinkers, although there was some subterfuge involved in its development.
“About a year ago we started playing with our original draught stout and brought it to gluten-free because we needed to be sure that no-one could tell the difference,” Gordon explained.
“So when we brought out and launched the gluten-free stout there is no such thing as ‘I know it tastes different’. Because we can say, ‘well it doesn’t because you have been drinking it for a year’. It is just that no-one has known about it.
“It was something we had done but we had to keep quiet about it.”
The plan worked and the stout has moved on from its beginnings in Crosshaven proving popular in bars around Cork and Dublin.
“It is good. I think the gluten-free range will be our biggest thing. We still haven’t gone entirely that way, we are leaving options open. But it could happen,” Gordon said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an engineer, Gordon said they have been very deliberate in deciding how to expand their range.
“We do things a bit differently [when planning products]. We think about the group of people or the demographic that we are going to sell beer to. We figured out that and then design and sell a beer for that group, rather than brewing what we like and then hoping that everyone else likes it.
“It is a strategy that has worked for us for each of the beers.”
They are committed to the game plan, despite admitting that sometimes the more unusual beers can be the most enjoyable to make.
Gordon said, “Black Lightning, which is the big 6.5% American IPA, is the lowest seller and the last of our core range to develop. We knew it would have the least sales, but it is probably the most fun to brew and wins the most awards.
“But it still doesn’t sell in big numbers. It creeps up on you [because of its strength]. Three of them and that’s your early night! If you were to rely on beers like that all the time it wouldn’t be sustainable.
“The lager, Stag Saor Kolsch, has turned out to be the biggest seller. That is in line with what you would see in beer sales anyway — lager is Ireland’s biggest seller.”
Despite their busy 2017, and having come a long way since their first beer launched in 2014, they have big plans for expansion in the new year.
Gordon said: “For 2018, we are looking at exporting. It had been in our original plan for year four to five and that is coming up now. We seem to be sticking to that plan and what we were thinking would happen pretty much has, so we need to start looking at exporting.”
Their staff has grown to eight since their early days but, thanks to the careful planning, they have plenty of capacity for further growth in their brewery premises.
“We have future-proofed the business pretty well. The worst thing you can do is build something and then in three or four years have to build it again because you have to complete finance and everything again.
“My background is engineering so we had some idea of what we were doing going into it.
“The main equipment in the plant is capable of doing maybe three to four times what we are at now.”
Beer-loving coeliacs can rejoice — it sounds like 9 White Deer Brewery will be amply providing for them for years to come.
According to the Coeliac Society of Ireland, this country has one of the highest prevalence of the disease in the world, with roughly one in 100 people having coeliac disease.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition, the body’s immune system reacts to the protein gluten — found in wheat, barley and rye. It is a lifelong condition, and there is no cure other than avoidance of gluten. The body’s reaction to gluten causes damage to the lining of the intestine. This deprives the body of nutrients and can lead to malnutrition.
The Society says it currently takes, on average, 13 years from when someone first experiences symptoms to diagnosis. Many of those with coeliac disease were previously misdiagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
The most common symptoms are in the gut and include frequent bouts of diarrhoea, nausea, feeling sick, gas, and bloating. Sufferers may also suffer from ongoing fatigue, regular mouth ulcers and weight loss, although not in all cases.
There are also people who, although not coeliac, feel better when they eliminate wheat, rye or barley from their diet.
“For a lot of people it is only a small thing,” Gordon said.
“They stop taking gluten and realise what they assumed was normal life was like, shouldn’t have been. They were tired, with low energy levels, and then give up gluten and realise they had somewhat of an intolerance to it. Just a small thing but it has improved their life quality.”
There is widespread debate about gluten intolerance, with some suggesting avoidance of gluten is simply another type of fad diet. A Dublin café keen for publicity last year suggested they would only offer gluten-free products to those with a doctor’s certificate.
But many people feel considerably better without gluten and — as a result — the gluten-free offering in shops, bars and restaurants have increased considerably in recent years.
Nearly every supermarket in Ireland now offers not just gluten-free bed but many other products, from kievs with a gluten-free coating to cakes and biscuits.
The advent of gluten-free beer in bars and restaurants means wider options for those who would previously be restricted to wine, cider, and spirits.