With evidence of beer consumption appearing as far back as Neolithic-era, Mesopotamia, the fermented drink has been through a number of changes as it passed from generation to generation. Now arguably the most popular alcoholic beverage around the world, beer drinking has become a cultural pastime for many consumers.

But after years of domination from macro-breweries, the beer market is changing. The craft movement has paved the way for beer formats with formats and formulas that break the mould. While malted barley may have been the grain of choice for more than 200 years, ancient grains are beginning to reclaim their place in beer brewing. With their naturally gluten-free and novel characteristics, it’s no surprise that these grains have begun to gain attention from breweries looking to stand out from the crowd. The trend for ancient grains is already emerging in the US, where a recent poll by Nielson Craft Beer Insights revealed of regular craft beer drinkers, 65% responded with ‘variety’ as being the top driver of their consumer choice.

To find out more about brewing with these ancient ingredients, we spoke to managing director of gluten-free beer brewery Green’s, David Ware.

What’s old is brewed again : following traditions

Making beer with ancient grains is not a new concept; in fact it’s one of the oldest trends in brewing. Archaeologists have estimated that drinkers as far back as 20,000 years BC were using grains such as, buckwheat, rice and millet. Back then the resulting nutrition-rich liquid provided a safer option than drinking contaminated water from natural sources as the fermentation process killed off harmful pathogenic microorganisms. But as commercial farming overtook the hunter gatherer lifestyle, farmers opted to grow crops that would produce the largest amount of grain in order to ensure profitable turnovers.

As grains such as wheat and barley were relatively cheap to grow, they quickly became the leading choice for producers. Compared with ancient grains, these gluten-rich options were much easier to brew with and as malt barley became the go-to choice for beer manufacturers, ancient grains such as buckwheat and millet disappeared from the mainstream market.

But relying on these a few mass-produced grains for both food and drink has resulted in an increasing number of people developing dietary sensitivities and digestive complaints. Among them was Derek Green, founder of gluten-free beer company, Green’s. For the beer-loving Yorkshireman, being diagnosed celiac was a problem, as very few gluten-free beers were available in 1988. Recognising the potential for beers made with gluten-free ingredients, Green set out to develop his own range. After a few setbacks from brewers who considered the endeavour to be unquantifiable, the concept became a reality in 2003 when Green met an eminent Belgian professor with had a similar interest in exploring the use of ancient grains in gluten-free brewing.

Gluten-free : more room for exploration and innovation

As smaller, independent breweries began to gain traction among mainstream consumers, the room for exploration and innovation widened. Microbreweries were no longer confined to producing conventional beer compositions; rather, they were encouraged to break the mould with niche products that offered out-of-the-ordinary drinking experiences.

While the novelty of gluten-free beer brewed with ancient grains may have be enough to entice experimental drinkers, it was vital that Green’s beers were flavoursome in order to appeal to a wider market. In May 2004 Green’s launched Discovery, the UK’s first ever alternative grain and naturally gluten free beer. In addition to being naturally gluten-free, the ancient grains used by Green’s have distinctive flavour profiles, which allow the brewers to be more experimental with the hops they use.

“Ancient grains just have a distinctive taste and we have to offer our beers to a wider appeal. So somebody who likes heavily malted beers will immediately take to beers from ancient grains but some people don’t like heavily malted beers, so we add hops to them,” explains Wade. “We have five different hops in our IPA just to balance the bitterness; we have a dry hop lager which lightens the beer.”

He continues: “Because the technology at the time limited us to brewing it from alternative grains that were gluten free it was predominantly buckwheat, millet, sorghum and husks of brown rice and we still use that today.”

Flavour and function : wellbeing trends

Alternative grains have experienced a popularity boost over recent years thanks to the rise of influential health and wellbeing trends in the food industry. After years of reliance on gluten-heavy products, consumers are paying closer attention to how their dietary choices affect their overall health, leading many to actively seek out gluten-free or more beneficial options.

Although gluten-free beers have been around for approximately 15 years, they are only recently beginning to grow in the market. This means increased competition for brands, as Ware explains: “Four years ago there would be six gluten-free beers in the UK, now there are over 270.” According to Research and Markets, the global gluten free beer market is expected to grow at a CAGR of more than 40% by 2021.

As awareness about the nutritional value of ancient grains, such as quinoa and buckwheat grew, their appearance in products became closely associates with positive health benefits. Combined with the gluten-free appeal, the appearance of these grains in beers gave Greens the opportunity to position its products as not only, flavoursome, but healthier alternatives to conventional beers.

“We’re not calling these beers healthy beers, but they are certainly healthier, they’ve got healthier attributes and healthier ingredients than barley or wheat,” explains Ware. “Sorghum, millet and brown rice have high trace elements of minerals such as zinc (triple that of barley based beers) selenium, manganese and magnesium .They are high in proteins to help muscle growth, and rich in B vitamins, especially Niacin B3 for healthy skin and B6 for oxygenating blood (50% more than conventional beers). Buckwheat in particular is packed with nutrients and antioxidants like rutin and tannins, known for promoting healthy blood vessels and circulation. A low GI index supports more stable blood sugar levels too.”

He continues: “These refermented beers contain living yeast cells that help to support the microflora in the gut. By the time the refermentation happens, the ‘single sugars’ have been eaten by the yeast, but there are residual polysugars act as soluble fibre, helping the intestines. That’s satisfying “psht!” you hear when you open a bottle of Green’s is the carbon dioxide made from the refermentation and you know it’s the proper, natural way of doing things.”

A new niche : a profitable opportunity

Beer made with ancient grains present a profitable opportunity for those willing to put in the effort required to brew them, as Green’s has demonstrated in the 14 years since the launch of Discovery.  As a pioneer of gluten free beer in Europe, the brand has been perfectly positioned to target the growing interest in gluten-free and alternative drinks. With ancient grains now a prominent feature in the food industry, this awareness is likely to increase significantly as more health-conscious drinkers forgo conventional market leading options in favour of lesser-known beers that cater to the diverse needs of modern dietary preferences.

Moreover, the historical appeal of ancient grains taps into the growing nostalgia demonstrated by modern consumers. Motivated by the rise of the craft trend, these ‘good-old-days’ style brews are often deemed to be ‘better’ than heavily manufactured beers as brewers place heightened emphasis on the brewing process, as well as the quality and back-story of the ingredients they use.

Over recent years, farmers have been under increased pressure to meet supply demands, and consequently genetically modified plants emerged as an efficient way to produce large quantities of produce that was robust enough to reduce the risk of crop death. In contrast, the ancient grains we grow today are pretty close to the ones use in ancient Mesopotamia. This ‘natural’ characteristic may be highly beneficial for manufacturers faced with increased scepticism surrounding products that are perceived to be overly processed or damaging to the environment. Amidst growing interest in such offerings, Ware expects competition to increase significantly as brewers big and small look for ways to target a new wave of health-focused, yet experimental drinkers.

“Brewers are looking for niches,” he says. “Perhaps this is another niche.”