Lucky Pigeon, one of Maine’s newest breweries, has opened in Biddeford’s Pepperell Mill – just around the corner from Banded Brewing and an easy walk from Blaze Brewing and the Run of the Mill brewpub.

And while it slots right into a crafty foodscape of brewers and bakers, distillers and ice-cream makers, it offers something quite unique in Maine brewing as the state’s first dedicated gluten-free brewery.

Although gluten-free beer is still pretty niche, it’s easy to see how a brewery like Lucky Pigeon could become a lodestone for some beer drinkers. Gluten is a protein in many of the core grains – barley, wheat, rye, spelt – historically used to make beer. But many can’t safely, or comfortably, consume it.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 1 percent of the U.S. population has Celiac disease, which produces an autoimmune reaction to eating gluten, triggering an attack on the lining of the small intestine. An additional 6 percent of Americans are gluten intolerant or sensitive, meaning that they feel sick or tired after consuming gluten.

And there are also many who are merely trying to cut some gluten from their diets, for perceived health reasons. Within Maine’s populous beer scene, Lucky Pigeon likely has a ready-made constituency of drinkers needing to eliminate, or looking to minimize, gluten in their diets.

The number of gluten-reduced or gluten-free beers around the country has been expanding. Maine’s first “gluten-removed” beer was Geary’s Ixnay, released in 2014. Due to federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines, Geary’s can’t call it “gluten-free” because of the production process. It is brewed with malted barley, as a typical beer would be, but during fermentation the gluten is removed using an enzyme.

Lucky Pigeon takes a different approach, avoiding any grains with gluten from the start – something that might be particularly appealing to those with Celiac disease, for whom avoiding any traces of gluten is crucial.

Millet and rice are the foundational grains for each of Lucky Pigeon’s beers. They’ve augmented those recipes with buckwheat, quinoa and oats. Most of the grains they use are malted – a process that modifies the starches needed for brewing – just as traditional barley or wheat would be. However, gluten-free malts are significantly more expensive than their traditional counterparts – more than triple the price, according to brewer Scott Nebel. Lucky Pigeon sources their grains from dedicated gluten-free malthouses in Colorado and California.

A flight of gluten-free beers at Lucky Pigeon in Biddeford. Photo by Ben Lisle

The brewery’s core lineup consists of a blonde ale, a pale ale, an IPA and a brown ale. The more hop-forward beers stand out, and should be popular given the current demand for juicy ales with diminished maltiness. Eclectus is a very approachable blonde ale (5% ABV), awash in lemon and orange. Rock Dove, the IPA (6.5% ABV), features grapefruit, with a candied sweetness and lively body finished off with pithiness. Little Brown Job, the brown ale (5.2%), is an intriguing departure from its fruitier cousins. Roasty, with chocolate trails and moderate bitterness, it suggests that there may be more range to gluten-free grains than just being a stage for hoppy fireworks.

Drinkers might notice some differences in aroma, flavor and mouthfeel from barley-based beers. I definitely missed some of the body that gluten provides. I wouldn’t reach for an Eclectus or Rock Dove over some of the better local hazies, as they lack the creaminess those beers can offer; however, I suspect that many drinkers either wouldn’t notice or might even prefer the lighter, arguably more refreshing body of these beers. When it gets down to it, as Nebel says, “We are just making beer like any other brewery.”

Nebel – who brewed for nearly a decade at Maine Beer Co. and Sebago Brewing Co. – says the brewery will continue experimenting with these core beers. They are developing a Belgian-style Golden Ale and an American Stout, which should come out later this year. They also hope to brew lager beers in the future. But the development process “entails a lot of trial and error,” Nebel notes. Gluten-free brewers are essentially bucking centuries of brewing development through which grains have been selected, curated and malted specifically to work well in beer. “Our gluten-free grains do not have this historical advantage,” he observes.

And yet, the brewery does possess one distinct historical advantage. “When we first saw the Pepperell Mill space, we just knew it was for us,” says Bev Pigeon, one of the brewery’s owners. “The big windows, brick, soaring columns and the weathered wood floor had so much character and light, we just loved it.”

Warm wood abounds, from the rugged old mill floors to the rough-and-tumble tables and chairs to the bar constructed of salvaged wood. Splashes of color on the chairs and the button-upholstered booths are animated by planks of natural light from the tall, narrow windows intercut with brick columns. It all lends the space a worn and comfortable feel. As Pigeon puts it, they weren’t “fussy” about the design, but they were committed to creating “a space that was welcoming, interesting, clean, and let the character of the space shine through.”

And in that sense, Lucky Pigeon – as a maker of beer and a place to drink it – embodies that productive tension, between innovation and history, that defines craft brewing.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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