As a tennis player and then a competitive distance runner, Los Altos Hills native Caitlin Landesberg lived enveloped in an athletic world at work and at home.
She had established local professional roots as an intern at the Town Crier and then in high-tech marketing at San Francisco-based Strava, a technology company that tracks GPS data and provides a social network for runners and cyclists.
When she stopped eating gluten in 2012, Landesberg started noticing parts of social sportsmanship she was missing out on, including, notably, the post-workout beers.
“I was so used to this culture of getting your commemorative pint glass – it’s more than just beer,” she said of the post-workout pint tradition. “It’s why you stick around and meet your friends.”
Landesberg started homebrewing with sorghum under the theory that if gluten-free beer was going to taste bad, at least it could be her who made it. She started taking summer courses in brewing at UC Davis and connected with a brewmaster who taught her how to break down gluten in beer rather than brewing without it in the first place.
“They have one of the best beer programs in the world, from homebrewing to microbiology,” Landesberg said. “I was cobbling this together as a hobbyist, and I played around with business plans on the side.”
As she found herself getting licensed with Alcoholic Beverage Control, attending weekend tastings and drawing professional feedback, she realized that her homebrewing had become a business.
In October, she launched Sufferfest Beer Co. and pursued the trade full time. The name derives from the idea of an agonizing activity whose misery leads to a marvelous experience – think polar bear swims or ultramarathons. Her nomenclature and branding also nod to the world of physical feats and aspirations, with an Epic Pilsner (5.1 percent ABV) and Taper IPA (7.5 percent ABV) bottled in sleek cans with a logo of a fist clutching a sheaf of barley in victory.
Landesberg operates as a “gypsy brewer,” contracting with a brewery in San Francisco and, soon, with the Hermitage facility in San Jose to make her own recipes of gluten-removed beer. Sufferfest’s pilsner and IPA use traditional ingredients and a classic brewing process up to a point – with the added element of a gluten-removal step. An enzyme commonly used to clarify beer can also, when used in larger quantities, break down gluten proteins.
Gluten-free brews such as cider and mead have been crafted for thousands of years, but the sorghum, millet or rice used to make a celiac-friendly beerlike brew usually just don’t taste the same as mainstream modern beer, which goes deep on barley and wheat. Sufferfest is one of the companies pursuing an alternative.
“The gluten-removal approach uses an enzymatic process similar to Lactaid,” Landesberg said of the lactose-free dairy product, “while it preserves the flavor, integrity and profile of the recipe.”
Some people who avoid gluten feel that any measurable level can still have allergenic effects. Brewers like Landesberg can use R5-Gliadin ELISA assays to register the smallest currently detectable amounts of gluten. She conducts a laboratory test on every batch of beer to validate that the gluten proteins have been reduced to a level below 10 parts per million, which meets the threshold for “gluten free” in Europe but is described in the U.S. as “gluten-removed.”
Other breweries using this enzymatic process include Stone’s Delicious IPA, New Belgium Glutiny and Omission Beer in Portland, whose founder functions as a strategic adviser for Sufferfest.
Los Altos residents can try the pilsner and IPA at Draeger’s Market or Whole Foods Market, and at Blue Line Pizza on Castro Street in Mountain View. Landesberg is expanding distribution in the Bay Area as well as shipping to other states.
For more information, visit sufferfestbeer.com.