The gluten phenomenon has made its way to the world of craft beer. Malted barley is one the core, basic ingredients in beer production, and so most beers cannot be consumed by those with a gluten-intolerance or those trying to live a gluten-free lifestyle. There are some breweries, however, trying to make their drinks as accessible as possible. Manchester-based outfit First Chop one of these companies leading the way in gluten-free beer production while never compromising on quality in the process. Flavourly spoke to founder and managing director Richard Garner about First Chop’s story.
Gluten-free has become something of a revolution in recent years with some extolling and some disputing the supposed health benefits of avoiding the protein found in many grains, while others simply dodge it due to an intolerance. The jury is largely still out on the debate, but either way it’s fair to say that consumers are far more aware of the existence of gluten than they used to be.
History of First Chop
Richard had been fairly well known on the Manchester bar scene since the 90s, stocking some innovative beers before the concept of ‘craft’ was really a thing. His cafe was probably the only place in the UK that you could drink a Belgian red ale with your full English! An interest in Belgian beer, and inspired by the likes of Brewdog and Thornbridge, convinced Richard to start making his own beer. In 2010, he borrowed a brew kit from a local micro-brewery, determined to fill what he saw as a gap in the market for great new cask beers.
The first beer he brewed was HOP, an ultra pale ale that is still on the company’s line-up today. “It was a beer designed for my own palate and also by listening to feedback from my customers at the original First Chop bar in Ramsbottom, Lancashire,” Richard explained. Although he started brewing with modest expectations, planning to brew 10 batches over 2 years, demand quickly increased. “In October 2012, I took orders in one week for over 4000 litres of beer – more than I had planned to make over the 2 years. So, I decided to buy my own brewery.”
Making gluten-free beer wasn’t necessarily top of Richard’s agenda from the beginning. Richard explains: “Gluten free beer came about after a trip to a brewing symposium in Nuremberg. I was on a mission to produce better beer and was basically looking at ways to improve my production. Now, although beer is made with gluten containing ingredients, no brewer really wants any gluten left in the finished beer.
“Lamb is made from sheep which are covered in wool, but you don’t really want any of that wool in your roast dinner on a Sunday afternoon – it’s not going to add much to the experience. You can consider gluten in beer in a similar way. Gluten is a protein, there is no place in beer for protein. All brewers use different methods of fining and conditioning to remove the unwelcome protein.
“I have family members who are coeliac [allergic to gluten] so have a good understanding of gluten intolerance. What I discovered whilst I was on my mission to improve my beer was that I could kill two birds with one stone. I could better my beer by getting all those proteins out and at the same time reduce the gluten to such a low level as to make “I have family members who are coeliac [allergic to gluten] so have a good understanding of gluten intolerance. What I discovered whilst I was on my mission to improve my beer was that I could kill two birds with one stone. I could better my beer by getting all those proteins out and at the same time reduce the gluten to such a low level as to make the official gluten-free claim.
On to their beers…
First Chop beers all contain less than 5ppm (parts per million) of gluten, meaning that those with coeliac disease can happily quaff away. “Producing gluten free beer is more about consistency and quality control than anything else. There is nothing taken out of the beer that isn’t taken out of any other beer – we just have to do that job consistently well to very high standards and to test and audit the process.”
Their best seller is SUP. It’s a 3.9% session IPA where Dr Rudi, Rakauand Mosaic hops pack a tropical punch despite the low ABV. It’s also Richard’s favourite type of beer to make: “My favourite styles to brew are the ones that I like to drink the most myself. Being a bit of a lightweight on the drinking front but also being a very thirsty boy, I like beers that are low in alcohol but big in flavour. I want to be able to taste and feel what I’m drinking but I want to be able to remember my own name after five pints of it!”
Their mango pale ale JAM is another crowd-pleaser; a fact recognised in it winning a prize at the World Gluten Free Beer Awards. In fact, First Chop is no stranger to winning prizes for their brews – some of Richard’s proudest moments have been with competition success.
“Our IPA recently won a silver medal at SIBA BeerX and we have won many more over the years. What makes me the most proud is when I know the awards are blind-tasted like the SIBA awards – because we are competing against non-gluten-free beers. I know that our beer is no different to a non-gluten-free equivalent but there is a lot of ignorance (and a hell of a lot of shit spouted!) surrounding this subject, so it’s great to win these awards.”
According to Richard, it is a combination of ethos and ingredients that make First Chop brews stand out. “I think that although we do make modern beers, we don’t go chasing trends. We use only the very best quality ingredients. I truly believe that Warminster – our maltster – produce the best malt in the world. It’s traditionally produced from award winning barley, floor malted – it’s perfect. We choose modern varieties of hops for their flavour profile but don’t overuse them and try to produce consistently well-balanced beers.
Unsurprisingly, Richard and First Chop have no plans to slow down. If anything, they’re planning to step on the gas. “We are installing a new brewhouse later this year that will increase our capacity and efficiency and allow us to experiment with more styles of beer,” says Richard.
“We recently brewed a proper helles on a very, very basic brewhouse – a massive, massive challenge. The new brewhouse will allow us to do stuff like that with many fewer expletives uttered!”
Originally published in Issue 15. Written by Will Moss.