The Gluten-Free Brewster: Stratford's Church Owl Beer
The terms “brewster” and “alewife” are used synonymously to describe English women who brewed ales in the 15th century for both domestic and commercial use. Some might be surprised to learn that today’s male-dominated beer industry was once the primary responsibility of women who brewed large quantities of ale as an affordable and clean alternative to the dirty and contaminated drinking water of medieval England.
Fast forward to the 21st century and meet Taylor Grothe who, despite her affinity for history, was drawn to becoming a brewster for an entirely different reason: celiac disease.
“In the fall of 2013, right around Oktoberfest, I was diagnosed,” says Taylor. “It was particularly disappointing news, because my husband is German, and we both really enjoy beer.” As she changed her diet, Taylor scoured the market for an acceptable gluten-free beer. “To be perfectly blunt, I wasn’t that impressed with what I tried,” recalls Taylor. “I went from enjoying great-tasting imported beer to really awful-tasting gluten-free beer.”
That’s when she took matters into her own hands. Her husband, Thomas, bought home a beer-making kit, and she began to experiment. Through research and trial and error, she produced small batches of gluten-free beers that her friends enjoyed drinking. The positive reviews encouraged her to keep tinkering and make improvements.
By 2016, Taylor had founded Church Owl Beer and opened a manufacturing facility in Stratford, Connecticut. “It took a long time to find the right facility and to go through the arduous process of getting all the approvals required to open a commercial brewery,” says Taylor. “But it prepares you for the kind of rigor you’ll be experiencing day in and day out when running this kind of business.”
Church Owl currently features two beers in its lineup. The Tailfeather Auburn Ale has a citrusy, floral nose with an auburn red hue. A unique blend of spices and fruit, including cardamom, pink peppercorn, vanilla, and black currants, creates a complex and full taste that seems to evolve with each sip.
The seasonal Treetop Oatmeal Stout is an imperial stout, rich in mouthfeel yet incredibly smooth. Taylor’s goal with this beer was to make it reminiscent of apple pie. The beer is constructed with apple chips and traditional pie spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and whole vanilla bean. “This 9.9% ABV stout is the perfect beer to sip in front of the fireplace,” she says.
From the outset, Taylor’s chief goal has been to handcraft glutenfree beers with a superior taste. The challenge in doing so is finding grain replacements that mimic barley’s protein content. Sorghum is a common grain used in most gluten-free beers, but its taste and bitterness can be challenging if not handled correctly.
“When making our stout, I spend roughly 14 hours hand-caramelizing the sorghum, so it’s dark and beautiful,” explains Taylor. “It’s a two-day labor of love, but it’s worth it.” Other grains and spices make guest appearances in her recipes, and it is clear that Taylor enjoys the process associated with finding unique ingredients that perfectly complement each other.
Church Owl is a young company, and its distribution in Connecticut bars and restaurants continues to grow. “To the best of our knowledge, Church Owl is the only gluten-free beer available on draft in the United States, and that’s a huge draw for us,” says Taylor.
According to Heather Nardi, Manager of Litchfield’s At The Corner Restaurant and Pub, “Church Owl is one of the best gluten-free beers I’ve ever had. It’s full flavor, a local brand, and stands out in a segment not known for producing great-tasting products.”
According to Infinium Global Research, the gluten-free beer market is expected to grow at an annual compounded growth rate of more than 40% during 2016-2021. Despite being a niche market, the prospect of delivering a superior-tasting product in an otherwise bland segment is a lucrative opportunity.
“It’s great to see a product that passed through my hands dispel the myth that gluten-free beers taste bad,” reflects Taylor. “There’s no better feeling in the world than hearing from a non-gluten-free drinker that they really like your beer and count it among their favorites.”
Taylor has no plans to grow the business and exit. She would like to stay involved with the business for as long as she can. “It’s about love, really,” she says. “I think if you ask any small business owner, that’s what they would say about why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Connecticut’s brewery scene continues to grow and evolve, and Church Owl may be one of its most unique members. As the bigger players fight for market share, trying to “out hop” each other, Taylor Grothe, the brewster of Stratford, is poised to potentially disrupt the market by combining novel grains and ingredients that reveal refreshing new tastes.
Church Owl Beer
681 Access Rd., Stratford