Thursday, February 26, 2009

Interview: Bard's Tale Gluten Free Beer Company

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the fine folks at Bard's Tale Beer Company. I am very interested in Gluten Free products, especially beer and pizza (if you have not noticed). Since no local brewers in North Carolina have yet to take on the Gluten Free Beer challenge (I've asked - believe me), I thought I would reach out to those brewers who were already out there making great GF Beer and talk with them about their company and products.

Over the past few weeks, I have been conversing with Tasha Kardaris who is the VP of Marketing for Bard's. I was surprised to find out she had been looking at my blog before I contacted her. Gluten Free consumers find themselves in a unique situation - the majority of companies catering to us are VERY interested in our feedback and are willing to make changes to their products based on that feedback. Tasha has been very gracious in taking the time to talk with me and answer some of the questions I posed about their business. Below is a question and answer session I had with Tasha over the last few weeks.

Bard's Beer Company Interview
How did Bard's Beer get it's start?
Bard's was founded by Celiacs, Kevin Seplowitz and Craig Belser. They were diagnosed with Celiac disease in their late 20s and had known what “real” craft brewed beer tasted like. They were quite “bummed out” to discover that traditional barley and wheat-based beers were not on their list of items that they could enjoy on a gluten-free diet. The GF “beer” options they tried were in their opinions, undrinkable. And sipping wine during a football game didn’t quite cut it. They missed a full bodied, craft brewed beer. Since both were home brewers before being diagnosed, they started experimenting with various GF grains until they came up with the formula for Bard’s which tastes like a traditional craft-brewed beer. In this case, necessity WAS the mother of invention. We officially started selling the beer in 2004 in 8 states. Both are still involved in the company and still are part-owners of Bard’s Tale Beer.
Tell me a little bit about your CEO?
Our current CEO is Brian Kovalchuk, who used to be the CEO of Pabst Brewing Company, among other companies. He was at the helm at Pabst and turned it around into the cool-hip brand it’s now become. We are thrilled to have him run the day-to-day operations at Bard’s because he is helping us navigate the “beer world” and expand our distribution in leaps and bounds. It’s helped us reach more of our celiac and GF friends who previously haven’t been able to get Bard’s Beer. Brian also oversaw our package redesign and our re-vamped, more customer-friendly website.
Tell me a little bit about the products at Bard's Beer.
It’s really the best tasting GF beer out there and not just because we think so. We have lots of fans who write into our website, who’ve tried the other GF beers and tell us that our beer tastes more like the beer they remember before being diagnosed and before going gluten-free. Bard’s Beer has a traditional craft-brewed taste because we malt our sorghum. No other GF beer (that we are aware of) uses this process which we hold proprietary. And in NC, last year we participated in Raleigh’s World Beer Festival, put on by All About Beer Magazine. Even though we are gluten-free and 99% of the beers there are not, we think our beer is good enough to measure up to other craft brews. We had a lot of exposure to non-celiacs at this event which hosts over 7,000 people.
Do you have any involvement with Celiac associations?
Craig often represents Bard’s at various Celiac-sponsored meetings throughout the US. Most recently, he attended the Celiac Sprue Association’s annual meeting, host the Bard’s Beer table where participants got to sample our beer. We’ve been involved with and participated in all of the national Celiac organization’s events for CDF, GIG and CSA in addition to becoming involved with local organizations like in GA with the Atlanta Metro-Celiac organization and with the Gluten-free Culinary Summit out of Denver. We’ve even been invited to speak and sample to future chefs at the nation’s top culinary school, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) during their gluten-free baking day.
Where is Bard's brewed and what processes are in place to ensure Gluten Free status?
Bard’s is contract-brewed in Utica, New York. We only use 4 ingredients in making Bard’s Beer: water, yeast, hops and malted sorghum. All of those ingredients are naturally gluten-free. We test every batch of Bard’s during the process and before it goes out to the public to ensure that there is NO gluten in the beer. Since we’ve been brewing Bard’s, we’ve never tested positive for gluten. Our founders are celiacs too so we don’t want to put anything out there that we wouldn’t drink ourselves. It’s also important to note we don’t use soy, corn or rice in our beer ingredients. A lot of Celiacs have cross-allergies and those who are allergic to rice or corn can’t drink some of the other GF beers out there because they contain these ingredients.
How much Bard's is sold in North Carolina? How about Raleigh?
Because we are privately held, we don’t release sales figures to the public. I do know NC was one of the first states we came to when we first started the business.
Any future plans on other GF beer varieties?
We are looking into other varieties of Bard’s but currently our focus is on broadening our distribution with our main brand.
How about kegging or canning the beer? Plastic bottles? Anything other than 6 packs?
We get asked the keg question a lot. We don’t keg our beer. Specifically because we don’t want to risk the possibility of cross-contamination. We can’t be 100% sure that a tap line has been cleaned properly if previously connected to a barley or wheat beer. With bottles, we don’t have that risk. We always are open to the possibility of coming up with alternative packaging like cans and 12 packs but I don’t have any information that I can release to the public at this time. We sell our product to the distributors by the case. If you would like a case of Bard’s, most of the time, your local beer store/package store can accommodate your request if you ask in advance.
Where is Bard's currently available in the US and what are your plans for expansion?
We are currently available in 32 states. Our plans for the future include expanding our distribution within the US and also expanding our reach in Canada (we are currently available in British Columbia) and if it makes sense to other countries if feasible. Because we don’t have the established distribution network that Redbridge (which as you know is an AB product), it is harder to find our beer. We have to secure licenses and distributors in every state individually. But we are working very hard to become available in all 50 states.
Where can one find Bard's Beer in Raleigh?
Bard's can be found at Whole Foods and Earth Fare locations throughout the Triangle.
How do I go about getting Bard's into my favorite establishment?
The best way to get Bard’s Beer into your local pub/restaurant/retailer is to ask the store buyer to order it for you. In the state of NC, our distributor is Millennium Beverage our of Charlotte. Their phone number is 704-342-1494. If you give this info to the owner of the liquor/beer store, they should be able to order it for you. On our website, we have a section which lists our distributors and also has letters that customers can download and give to their local store to ask to carry Bard’s.
Have you ever had any negative feedback about your products? How do you handle that?
For consumer feedback (negative or positive), we get emails from our customers every day. Our policy is to answer these within 24 hours.
A special thanks to Tasha and Bard's Beer Company for taking the time to answer my questions. Feel free to try out their products if you have not already and check out their Web site here.


Anonymous said...

Nice work Zach!!!

As the founder and president of a GF food company, I would like to reitereate your point that GF food and beverage companies are highly interested in consumer input. None of us in this biz believe that we cant do better and with constructive input from GF consumers we will do better. Working without gluten based ingredients is not easy but I assure you companies lik Bella Monica and Bards will master it.

Thanks again for the interview with Bards - it was very insightful!!!

Trevor Chambers
Founder and President
Bella Monica FlatBread Company
Raleigh, NC

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