In 2013 Taylor Grothe was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, a condition in which the body produces a damaging immune response to gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and malt). After eliminating gluten from her diet, Taylor, a stylish blonde who radiates energy, instantly felt far healthier as her insides healed and, amazingly, her asthma cleared. But something was missing from Taylor’s new life — beer, and the culture that comes with drinking it.
Finding the limited gluten-free options lacking in flavor, and in desperate pursuit of a quality brew, Taylor joined the more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. who participate in the phenomenon of home-brewing, and founded Church Owl Beer in October 2013. While personal breweries seemingly have taken kitchens, closets and basements by storm, very few of these brewers are attempting to brew without wheat, which produces a unique set of struggles. NYSOM sat down with the founder herself to learn more about the gluten-free beer craft.
New York States of Mind: With beers named “The Wise Old Owl” and “Fly By Night,” what’s with all the owls?
Taylor Grothe: Somehow I got really attached to the image of the owl. Beer was originally made on farms in barns. Owls were welcome because they killed the things that ate the grain. Owls are linked with wisdom, old age, the past. When we make our beer we try to respect the tradition of the original beer, which is wheat. We try to give homage to the traditions associated with beermaking.
NYSOM: What’s missing in the gluten-free market today?
TG: If you had a choice, you wouldn’t be shopping in the gluten-free aisle. The point is to make this type of beer more mainstream, accepted and drinkable. Not only for people with Celiac Disease but [for] people who want to try something different.
Especially for bar owners: [are they] going to spend $15 for a case of gluten-free beer or get a case of Bud Light for $3? There’s an easy choice there. There has to be a good reason for them to spend that money. The product has to be good enough that non-Celiac people will drink it.
We’re also trying to be the first gluten-free beer on draft. Which is interesting because you have to make sure the draft line hasn’t been used for anything besides cider, water or gluten-free beer. Otherwise you end up hurting people.
NYSOM: So you’re currently brewing in the kitchen. How does the process work?
TG: It consists of three stages. You boil something called the wort, which is the raw state of what would become the beer. That includes, for our purposes, sorghum and rice instead of wheat, water, hops and flavoring. Flavoring ranges anywhere from lavender flowers to nutmeg and turmeric. The first rack is taking that wort and funneling it into a container, and it sits in a temperature controlled area for two to three weeks. You also pitch the yeast in between the wort and the first rack. In a big setup you would expect that this all [would] be automated. You would have big containers, the boiler, and it would go to the first rack, strain through to the second rack and then to bottles.
The second rack is arguably the most important part. You pitch in something called casting sugar and that gives the yeast colony something to eat, and that produces carbonation. Usually you keep it in the second rack for two to three weeks as well. And then you put it in bottles and that sits for about two weeks until the carbonation shows, until it bubbles. And that’s it.
NYSOM: How do you decide what to change between batches for the perfect taste?
TG: Follow your nose and your taste buds. If it doesn’t taste perfect to you, chances are it isn’t great to anyone else. You can trick yourself into thinking anything takes good if you want. You have to ask people for their honesty: ‘If you had this as an option in a bar would you drink this?’
Mostly you will be tweaking not the main components but top layer spices, herbs, [and the] hops you put in. It’s a lot of trial and error but we’ve had pretty good success on first-runs. It’s more about polishing them up.
NYSOM: What’s the next step for Church Owl Beer?
TG: We’re in the process of securing a space. Our initial thought was to rent out part of a brewery but that wouldn’t work because there’s gluten in the air. So then we looked in Brooklyn for big spaces, warehouses that we can set up our brewery in. At $2000 a square foot, that was not happening. So we are probably going to move out of NYC in the next year and build our brewery in a basement and have that approved as a separate zone.
But we will be a New York [City] company. I’ve gotten a huge understanding from this area and the bars here. And the population, they’re very exacting. They know what they like and if they don’t like it, it’s not going to last. But when I go into bars I see that even a place as diverse and critical as New York doesn’t have a gluten-free option — there’s a market here I don’t see anywhere else. So we will be getting a bigger [manufacturing] space somewhere just outside of NYC but will be maintaining an outpost here. It’s important to us.
NYSOM: How do you transition from hobby to full-fledged business?
TG: There is a discrepancy between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), between production and selling of gluten-free product, specifically gluten-free alcohol product. Unfortunately, we’re in the situation where not many people have done this yet. So what you have to do is hire a lawyer. They do the due diligence and call the FDA and TTB and see how you get around this unfortunate[ly complicated] gluten-free issue. If all goes smoothly, you go to the TTB and file an application. They come and inspect the [manufacturing] space.
There’s an extra step tacked on for gluten-free products: you need to get the Celiac Disease Foundation to come in and look at your space, look at your floorplans, look at your HVAC system, your product and test it. And then you take your label and the TTB has to approve it and, because this is a partial food product, the FDA has to approve it. And then you can open the business.
Then you have to buy equipment. There’s a saying that to open a brewery that’s worth a small fortune you have to start with a small fortune. It’s a process.
NYSOM: Where do you see Church Owl Beer long-term?
TG: The long term, and also sort of the short term, goal is to popularize it within local markets. We want to create a following among smaller purveyors of drink and food. We don’t want to be Coors Light, but we also don’t want to be a tiny brewery no one has heard of. The point of this is to give people access and open a conversation about the availability of certain things in a market.
I want to make a following of younger people who are very conscious of their health. And I think our community, especially women, are very aware of what they’re putting in their bodies.
Unique to this specific type of market and this product [is that] you’re not really selling beer. You’re selling experience. You’re selling lifestyle. On the one hand, that should be easy to achieve. On the other they also have to like what they’re drinking. I do really miss the days when I could just go out to a bar and drink whatever I wanted, or I thought I could.
[Brewing beer] is very rewarding. It’s very hard. Things go wrong. Your beer explodes, it turns into vinegar. But one good beer changes a lot.
Follow Church Owl Beer’s website for updates, including events and product availability.