When John O’Brien was diagnosed coeliac, it wasn’t the sandwiches he missed. “The first thing the doctor said was, “That’s it, no more beer for you,” he recalls glumly.
He sought out alternatives, but nothing lived up to beer’s frothy, malty charm. “I started drinking wine and cider, but I quickly got sick of that because they were too sweet and sickly,” O’Brien says.
At the time, the only gluten-free beer came from Italy, and it wasn’t very common – there was only one container-load arriving every 12 months. So, O’Brien thought he’d brew his own.
Because most beers are brewed from wheat or malted barley, O’Brien’s first task was to find a grain that produced a similar taste and texture profile to that in traditional beer. “It was a bit hit and miss at first,” he admits. “I started off with sorghum and experimented with a whole other range of grains, such as buckwheat, rice, amaranth, quinoa and millet.”
Finally, he settled on sorghum with a dash of millet for his first batch of Australian-style lager. “There were a lot of failures in there,” he says. “I brewed dozens and dozens of batches and there were some terrible ones, but occasionally I hit on a good one.”
At this stage, O’Brien was merely brewing beer to drink himself; but he realised that, with little competition in the gluten-free beer market, there was a real opportunity to go commercial. Rebellion Brewing was born.
Starting with a contract brewer and eventually buying his own brewery in Ballarat, Rebellion now has five styles under its O’Brien label – including a pale ale, a darker brown ale and the original premium lager – plus a range of seasonal brews.
And, by all accounts, they’re pretty good. O’Brien’s Belgian Ale recently took home a gold medal at the Australian International Beer Awards, beating its gluten-full competition. O’Brien reckons Rebellion is simply part of the growing normalisation of gluten-free diets. “There are a lot of people choosing the gluten-free diet just as a lifestyle choice – because they think it’s healthier for them, even if they haven’t been diagnosed with gluten intolerance,” he says.
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