It was way back in 2005 that O’Brien Beer released Australia’s first gluten free beer, yet the brewery’s story starts much earlier. In fact, you need to go back to 1998 – the year John O’Brien discovered he had coeliac disease.
For John, it was a discovery that meant giving up a few things, among them the building blocks of beer. And, while John felt pretty sure he’d be fine without most breads and pasta, he wasn’t too sure how he’d go losing beer.
Despite flirting with cider and wine in the first few years living without gluten, John held steadfast in his love for beer. So, looking for a way to drink beer again, he decided to learn how to homebrew.
This meant researching and reading whatever he could about beers brewed without either barley or wheat. Eventually, John took those lessons to his backyard and, while he may have suffered from some fairly poor first attempts, eventually he found a method – and some grains – he was happy to brew with.
Primarily among those grains was sorghum, a crop not often associated with beer in Australia. Here, sorghum is best known as a livestock feed, but elsewhere it’s a grain with a long association with beer. In parts of Africa where the grain is widely grown, sorghum has been used for hundreds of years to make beer, including Guinness, and John started using it to brew his own.
Sorghum became the basis of his homebrew and though O’Brien does use other gluten free grains – millet in particular – it remains central to the brewery’s beers.
Having overcome his first hurdle – making a beer he enjoyed drinking – John started to wonder how many other former beer drinkers who wanted to be current beer drinkers were out there. Quite a few as it turns out: an estimated one in 70 Australians is believed to be coeliac, though many of them are undiagnosed.
By 2004, spurred by a belief there were enough gluten intolerant drinkers with their minds still set on beer, John started Rebellion Brewing Co and Australia’s first ever gluten free beer range: O’Brien Beer.
The first batches of those beers were contract brewed but, by 2007, the brewery had invested in its own system and moved to Ballarat. Today, the brewery sits on a much larger site, but the regional city remains O’Brien’s home.
Despite being more than a decade old, with major awards on the mantelpiece and available widely across Australia, O’Brien still faces some of those same challenges from John’s early days brewing.
Sourcing raw grain, testing germination quality and then getting the grain malted is a process most breweries don’t have to worry about. Yet, in each step of the way, O’Brien must be involved, and the brewery has specific requirements around how it brews its beer.
Due to sorghum’s annual harvest, the brewery also must think well in advance about what it wants to brew. Considering the breadth of O'Brien's core beers, plus an increasingly large roster of seasonals, it’s unsurprisingly a process with its challenges.
Yet, according to John, it’s not his biggest. Instead, it remains trying to convince bottleshop, bar and pub owners that there are people out there who want to drink beer but can’t.
While restaurants are now acutely aware of the number of people who can’t eat gluten, bars and bottleshops have been slower to catch on. But, says John, it only takes one person in every pub to know a coeliac for the battle to be won. And, given he’s been on a mission to develop gluten free beer for Australians for two decades now, we’re pretty sure it’s a battle he’ll see through to the end.