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Against the grain

New Era Fine Fermentations revolutionizes gluten-free craft brewing in downtown Tulsa

Owner Jon Neff thinks outside the grain at New Era Fine Fermentations.

Greg Bollinger

Jon Neff is a pioneer. His brewery and taproom, New Era Fine Fermentations, opened downtown three months ago with a unique angle: every one of the dozen or so beers on tap are both 100 percent gluten-free, as well as made in-house using game-changing brewing methods he developed himself.

“In academia there’s always something to go off of. You have previous research to build from,” Neff said. His background in biochemistry informed his brewing research. “In this, all of us are starting from scratch. It’s a brand new science.”

Neff explains that using gluten-free grains like buckwheat or millet is a new, uncharted frontier for craft brewers. “You know, people have studied barley for years. But the first gluten-free brewery, Ground Breaker Brewing, just celebrated their seventh anniversary. Ghostfish Brewing was the first one to start brewing with the grains that I use, and they’re just going into their fourth year. It’s just, brand new, you know?”

Not only are GF grains more challenging to brew, but they’re inherently harder to turn a profit on. “The problem with the gluten-free grains is that there’s just a low efficiency. The amount of sugar you get per pound is not enough and it’s too costly,” Neff said. “I’ve now figured out a process to get much higher efficiencies, greater than theoretical. So our beer is costing us less. We’re having to put less raw ingredients into it than the others.”

So how does he coax so much more sugar out of his stubborn GF grains?

“I developed my own process to mash the grains,” he said, referring to the process where the grains are steeped in order to bring out the natural sugars. Sugar production is a critical step because when yeast eats sugar, it begins the fermentation process which yields alcohol as a byproduct.

“We want to help share this information with the other brewers, and help everyone grow,” Neff said. He identifies inclusivity as one of the driving principles behind New Era’s mission.

“We don’t want people to be excluded. That’s why on our menu we have some vegetarian items and vegan items, and our chef is really great at working with people with other food allergies. We just want people to know that if you have food allergies that you can still come out, sit around the table, have a beer, hang out, and be part of the community.”

The restaurant in New Era’s taproom is a culinary sanctuary for patrons with gluten sensitivity, but regardless of the GF status, the food is good. Their immensely popular, GF take on traditional British fish and chips is already a serious contender for a local best-in-class award. The generous portion of filets deep fried in sublime, crackly crispiness are stacked high in a nest of golden brown fries, a perfect harmony of softness and crunchiness. The lack of gluten doesn’t detract from the flavor of the entrée. On the contrary, it just makes this delicious dish even more remarkable.

“People don’t really realize that people that have food allergies have social pressures on them that other people don’t really see,” Neff said. “Think about someone who’s got a peanut allergy or a gluten allergy. You wanna go out with friends to a restaurant, but you’ve got maybe one option on that menu, and sometimes you can’t have any, and you have to just sit there and be like, ‘I’m gonna hang out while you guys eat, or I’m going to eat beforehand, or after dinner.’ You’re kind of excluded from just the socialization of sitting around the dinner table and talking.”

In addition to providing such an environment for socializing, the facility has the capacity for large-volume beer production, which is rigorously tested to verify no gluten is present. From the mild bubblegum and nutty notes in their Buckwheat Saison, to Pineapple Pen, a hoppy, floral New England-style IPA, the beers on tap at New Era aim for the high-quality flavor of traditional craft beer styles, while at the same time adhering to rigorous food allergy standards and blazing a trail in a new field of craft brewing.

But the important thing is that New Era’s beers appeal to everyone. Good beer is good beer, and Neff hopes that even people with no special dietary restrictions will soon learn to appreciate the unique flavor nuances the GF grain beers have to offer.

“We just want everyone to know that you don’t have to be celiac to enjoy these things,” Neff said. “They taste good and they can stand alongside any other beer, so just come try it out and see for yourself.”

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