As Chris Mirick’s father put it, people would always drink someone’s home brew once to be polite. But you knew your beer was good if they’d voluntarily have a second one.
Mirick, a 19-year Wellesley resident who is in between jobs as a general counsel, has found that people are happy to have more than one of his homebrews. He started making beer after college in the mid-199os with his uncle, a chemist by training, and they even brewed all the beer for Mirick’s brother’s wedding.
Now this home brewer is trying his hand at commercializing his creations.
Taking a break from beer
Mirick and his uncle at one point were doing all-grain brewing, and Mirick says he almost always had two or three styles of beer on tap at home.
But he was having health issues and was eventually diagnosed as a celiac. So Mirick put the beer aside—at his “peak brewing skill”—and went gluten-free the day after his brother’s wedding.
“Beer is from barley, and barley contains gluten, which is the protein that celiacs cannot tolerate,” Mirick says.
Once Mirick started avoiding gluten, he felt “incredibly better” within six months. Now 18 years later he’s still feeling great.
In the years since his diagnosis, Mirick did get back into brewing, initially making cider with family and friends. “It was drinkable, but there wasn’t much craft to it,” he says. Though Mirick does consider it a great Thanksgiving tradition in that it involves mostly using apples from his family’s place in Princeton, Mass.
Roughly 10 to 12 years ago, Mirick started working on the idea of brewing gluten-free beer. He consulted with the owner of Natick’s do-it-yourself Barleycorn’s brewery (now the home of Kells Beer Co.), and experimented with various gluten-free grains. Mirick came up with a base recipe involving sorghum, gluten-free oats, and quinoa that resulted in a pale gold beer, “hoppy and bright,” with about 7% ABV.
Mirick’s wife Catherine, a Wellesley School Committee member, further supported his efforts a couple Christmases ago by giving him a batch of custom-printed bottle caps that read “Wellesley Ale House,” for bottling his home-brewed beer. Last fall he actually snapped up that name in creating an LLC for his beer making venture.
Most Octobers, Mirick heads to Dallas to join friends who live there in a chili cooking competition. One who owns a restaurant with an extensive gluten-free menu tried Mirick’s beer and suggested it should be brought to market.
“We’ve been looking into it for a year or so,” Mirick says. “When my job ended in April, a friend here who I train in jiu jitsu with introduced me to Geoff Pedder of Zelus Beer Co., and we started working together on how to scale up my three gallon recipe to a commercial product.”
Mirick now has three recipes he likes, and one of those is being used for “Ankleknocker,” his first commercial batch (the name comes from a stretch of trail in Baxter State Park in Maine, where his family has gone hiking and backpacking for years). Zelus has been holding beer gardens in Medfield and Norfolk, and selling Ankleknocker on tap along with other beers.
The IPA-style Ankleknocker boasts a color and flavor Mirick’s happy with, though he’d like to knock the 8.7% ABV down a notch. There are three different hops in the brew, and then it’s dry hopped with a fourth variety after initial fermentation.
Mirick’s gluten-free beer is by far not the only choice in this growing market, which includes products from small breweries as well as behemoths like Anheuser-Busch. Mirick says gluten-free beers are regionally strong, with numerous options in large local liquor stores. Though down in Texas, he says, gluten-free beer is hard to find.
“The CDC estimates that about 1% of Americans are celiacs, and another 1% have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. So that’s 2% of Americans who can’t drink beer. If you could add 2% to the American beer market, that’s huge!” he says. “And, there are many people who like to minimize their gluten, which means you’ll have people who might drink a good gluten-free beer even if they could drink something with gluten.”
But do people, beyond those diagnosed as celiacs or that suffer some gluten intolerance, really want to drink beer minus the barley or wheat base?
Mirick’s convinced the answer is “Yes.”
“I’ve served my beers to lots of non-celiacs, including friends in the restaurant industry, who say that it is a good beer, period,” he says. “Not ‘a good gluten-free beer,’ but something that even a non-celiac would gladly drink.”