Thanks to Australian researchers, people on a gluten-free diet can now enjoy a real beer for the first time, produced using a special gluten-free strain of barley. For now though, this new pilsner beer is only available in Germany.
For the past 14 years scientists at CSIRO have been working on developing barley with low gluten content, with the aim to improve the diets of people who avoid gluten, such as those with coeliac disease.
Plant geneticist and project leader Dr Crispin Howitt explains that the new barley has 10,000 times lower gluten levels than regular barley. To achieve this, the researchers scanned the literature to find barley varieties that had lower-than-usual amounts of gluten, and bred them to achieve ‘ultra-low’ gluten levels in the final product.
"It's not genetic modification, it's all done through conventional plant breeding that farmers and plant breeders have been using for hundreds of years,” says Howitt. “It's exactly the same.”
The researchers have named their new barley Kebari after the Kebaran people, a stone-age culture thought to have been cultivating barley in the eastern Mediterranean region some 23,000 years ago. Today, barley is one of the most widespread cereal crops grown on the planet, and is used not only in beer, but as a vital food source in many parts of the world.
“There's two main reasons why we focused on barley," explains Howitt. “For one, barley is genetically more simple than wheat, making it easier to bring together the traits researchers were looking for. Also, if you take gluten out of wheat, you can't make bread out of it, making it functionally similar to barley.”
Even though the aim is to create a variety of gluten-free barley products, the researchers first sought interest from breweries because the earliest strains they’ve produced are best suited for malting.
Commercially produced gluten-free beers are already available on the market, but they’re usually made with grains such as millet and sorghum to avoid the high gluten content of wheat and barley malts. This inevitably affects the flavour of the final product.
"To me it tastes like a normal beer, just like a normal pilsner," Howitt says of the new Kebari-based beer.
German company Radeberger is the producer of the gluten-free pilsner Pionier, hitting the shelves in Germany today. It was brewed with Australian-grown barley - last year CSIRO shipped 70 tonnes of the grain, and are in the process of sending yet another shipment.
For now, the reason why local consumers can’t sample this new beer is down to labelling standards. Due to Australian regulations, anything that contains barley cannot be labelled gluten-free, even if the gluten content is well below what the World Health Organisation recommends as acceptable - 20 parts per million.
"When the regulation was drawn up in Australia, it was before you could conceive what we've done - so it was a catch-all to make sure all products are safe," explains Howitt.
Therefore Kebari barley is only considered ‘ultra-low’ in gluten here in Australia. However, the researchers are hoping to soon bring Kebari-based foods to local consumers as well.
“We’re also working on a hulless version of Kebari which is preferable for use in a range of foods like breakfast cereals, soup, even pasta and flatbreads, which will be the first part of the next generation of gluten free products helping people with coeliac disease to increase fibre, promote bowel health and enhance nutrition in their diet.”
According to Coeliac Australia, one in 70 people in Australia are affected by coeliac disease, although most remain undiagnosed. Some people also prefer to avoid gluten by choice, although researchers warn that diets restricting grains tend to be less nutritious, with higher levels of sugar and not enough fibre.