Crafting a Gluten Free Beer Revolution

Brian Kulbacki didn’t know what to expect when he first crossed the Hudson River, and then the East River, from his Hoboken home that blizzard night in early February 2013. His destination was the Alewife, in Long Island City, a bar where craft beer nerds mingle amicably amongst those who simply like IPAs, and Kulbacki, an on and off home brewer since late 2009, had entered his IPA into Homebrew Alley VII, a prestigious competition judged by some of New York’s home brewing elite.

But Kulbacki’s IPA was different than the other entrants that night – it was gluten free. After his best friend was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance some years prior, Kulbacki decided to concentrate on crafting a brew that was both gluten-free and would be attractive to those with and without the allergy. “Creating this type of beer was my focus as soon as I began brewing,” he says. “It has always been my specialty.”

Kulbacki, who is now in his late 20s, was shocked when he learned his GoodbiPA had placed third out of the more than 700 beers entered in Homebrew Alley VII. He admits it was a complete stroke of luck that he won, but he was offered the chance to speak to the home brewer’s guild. “I was honest with them,” he says. “At that time, GoodbiPA was more of a kitchen sink than a fine-tuned beer. I basically went into my box of ingredients and threw stuff in a pot and hoped it came out alright, so I’ve been working backwards from that moment ever since.”

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Two years later, and Kulbacki is ready to introduce that IPA, and several other gluten and non-gluten free offerings, to the general public, soft opening his brewery Departed Soles in Jersey City’s industrial and emerging Powerhouse Arts District. “I first looked at this property in 2012, but the landlord wasn’t comfortable leasing such a big space to me,” he says, but it took a collaboration with an also recently opened gelato shop to access the thousand or so square feet Kulbacki needed for the brewery. “We have a shared entrance way, but we are sort of hidden in the back of the gelato shop,” says Kulbacki. “It’s like we are a speakeasy.”

Long a niche within craft beer, gluten free is steadily becoming a popular option. Since 2012, sales of gluten free food have risen nearly 70 percent, and it is now a roughly $9 billion industry. Macro breweries have quickly followed suit – MillerCoors has begun to roll out Coors Peak Copper Lager the past few months and Anheuser-Busch InBev released Redbridge a few years ago (both beers have an ABV of over four percent).

As an undergrad at Boston College, Kulbacki wasn’t aware of a beer market for those suffering from celiac disease or who are averse to gluten. “At that time, I drank my fill of Busch Light,” he says, laughing. A post-21st birthday tour of the Sam Adams brewery, though, was Kulbacki’s ‘come to craft’ moment, and after a few years in Miami, he moved back to his native New Jersey and started home-brewing. “My first batch was a Belgian wheat style beer,” he says. “I also figured if I could make my own beer, it would save me a few dollars in the long run.”

But evenings at the bar sampling the then-gluten free options with his best friend, Kulbacki realized there was a crucially under-realized need in the market place. “He was my partner in crime,” says Kulbacki, “and I felt I could make something better than he was being forced to drink.” The two intended to open a brewpub to sell those gluten-free brews, which, unfortunately, never came true – as he commuted between his jobs as a teacher and a restaurant employee, Kulbacki’s friend was involved in a one-car accident in 2010 and died.

Grief supplanted Kulbacki’s brewing, and it took a few years for him to reorganize his life. As part of the process, he delved back into the wort. However, he had lot his touch – “I endured those first batches I made” – so he enrolled in the intensive American Brewers Guild brewing school program with the goal of opening a gluten-free brewery. He didn’t want to make a beer for the sake of being gluten-free which, at the majority of breweries with a gluten-free offering in their repertoire, is brewed by adding a chill aged enzyme during the cold crashing stage (the enzyme attaches itself to the gluten protein, so when the beer is filtered out, a good amount of the gluten is also removed).

“When I spoke to people with the allergy, I was told they would settle for those beers, but for the most part, that enzyme isn’t enough,” he says. “I didn’t want to take the lazy way out.”

Kulbacki likened the process to the wild west of craft, the period of the 1960s and 70s when brewing was more about imagination and less about following a set manual. “Some of the five gallon pilot batches I do come out like garbage,” he admits. “But that is because there is no book or guidance like there is for home brewers. There isn’t a kit at brew shops.”

Kulbacki, though, has an advantage – all of his ingredients are already gluten free. And he has a deft touch with them. While experimenting, he found an ingredient that balances out the tanginess of the sorghum in both his GoodbiPA and Black IPA – “If I told you the ingredient, I’d be out of business before I even open my tasting room” – and all of his gluten-free beers are mellow enough to entice non-afflicted drinkers.

“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, gluten free? That must be disgusting. I don’t want to try it,’” he says. “But when I go into bars and restaurants, I don’t even tell them at first. After they go, ‘Oh this is good,’ that’s when I let them know it is also gluten free. You have to change the perception of it, which will require more breweries making it and making it right.”

Enlightening the public hasn’t been Kulbacki’s only issue – he turned to Kickstarter to fund some of the necessary equipment, and received more than $20,000 (his goal was only $17,500).  See Brian’s Kickstarter Video Here.

Though Departed Soles has been soft opening since late June, the brewery should open full time in the coming weeks, brewing those two gluten free IPAs on Departed Soles’ full scale system. The brewery has also engineered a ten-gallon pilot system for other gluten free offerings, as well as a red ale and a Belgian triple (which will contain gluten).

On that winter night in Long Island City, two judges told Kulbacki that they hoped he converted from home to commercial brewing: “They said the world needs a really good gluten free craft beer.” Like Sam Adams, Anchor Steam, or Dogfish Head, Departed Soles could be the brewery to jump-start another craft movement.