Celiac diagnosis 'difficult' for Port Rexton brew master, but inspires new ideas

A Port Rexton brewery owner has begun making a new brew after receiving a "life-changing diagnosis" last year.

Alicia MacDonald, co-owner and brewmaster at Port Rexton Brewing Company, was diagnosed with celiac disease in the summer of 2018, a condition in which part of the small intestine is damaged by gluten found in wheat, rye and barley — some of the main ingredients in beer.

"I was not really paying attention to the symptoms my body was producing, being a bad patient and avoiding getting checked out … I finally went to the doctor and got everything tested and that's what it was, unfortunately," she said.

"Being a brewery owner and being diagnosed with celiac is definitely difficult."

MacDonald said she was devastated by the news, not just because she wouldn't be able to taste the beer she was brewing, but for all the time and money she and her partner Sonja Mills have invested in the brewery.

"Sonja and I worked really hard to build our project and be successful in our business and be entrepreneurs and work together, so it was a huge adjustment for me," she said.

Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

It took some time and support to adjust to her diagnosis, MacDonald said, and while there are breweries elsewhere making gluten-free products, it wasn't the same as tasting her own brew.

"Obviously, it's difficult sitting at the end of the work day in your brewery and you're not able to try anything," she said.

"We have cider and wine and gin and tonic and stuff, but when you start a brewery, you want to be able to drink a beer."

People seem to be super pumped about it, super receptive. - Alicia MacDonald

With the help of a gluten-free brewing consultant based in the U.S., MacDonald soon began learning the tricks of making beer with ingredients like quinoa, buckwheat and millet instead of barley or wheat.

In early November, Port Rexton Brewing released its first gluten-free beer, Fox Island Fog, a beer that MacDonald said is likely the first beer of its kind brewed in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

She said the beer is made in a one-barrel system that only produces three to four kegs of beer at a time.

"We want to make sure that we're perfecting our recipes before we go up to the big scale," MacDonald said.

"These one barrel tanks have never been brewed with regular beer before, so they've never been touched and won't be cross-contaminated."

Port Rexton Brewing Co./Facebook

Positive reactions to 'bold style'

The early reactions to the beer have been positive, MacDonald said, even though the style of beer she chose to make was a bit of a risk.

"I took a leap and went with a very bold style to begin with … I went with a hazy IPA, that's what I miss the most, but people seem to be super pumped about it, super receptive," she said.

"You can see some people that are either celiac or gluten intolerant really happy to see a hazy IPA, rather than the stuff that you can get in the stores that's mass produced."

Port Rexton Brewing Co./Facebook

MacDonald hopes to brew larger quantities of the beer in the future, with the hope of canning it for a reach beyond the taps of her brewery.

As for the other beers brewed at Port Rexton, MacDonald said the recipes for old favourites are well established, and she still develops new beers with brewers Les Perry and Chris LaCour, who help bring her beer ideas to life — even if she can't taste them herself.

"I have really great staff which have been working at our brewery for a while and know our product, so I'm super lucky that they're able to taste beer and brew it and design it in the way that we intended," she said.

"It's a whole team process, and we're super lucky to have everybody working really hard to replace my palette."

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