Centre works with partner to develop tasty gluten-free beer

Rodrigo Meireles, research assistant, is shown at the filling machine in the Beverage Pilot Plant. This unit is capable of filling bottles in an oxygen-free environment and can accommodate various sizes of vessels, both glass bottles and cans.

It all started over a beer.

When Miski Organics wanted to create an innovative organic, gluten-free beer made from a grain the market had yet to tap into in 2018, all directions pointed to Niagara College.

As home to the Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program and the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre, both were poised to help Miski Organics craft tasty suds that would capture a growing segment of beer drinkers.

“Nobody wants to be the new Molson here,” said Ricardo Irivarren, Miski Organics president. “We just want to be in your fridge — a six-pack if someone says ‘I’d like to have a beer but can’t have the gluten.’ People are going to drink gluten-free beer more and more and we are at the right time bringing something new to market, and the College is a big part of it.”

The brew is nearing the end of its development with those involved in the project, including Scientific Manager Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, PhD, working to perfect it and make up for production time lost during the pandemic. But like many conversations over a beer, the relationship between the CFWI Innovation Centre and Miski Organics blossomed into something even bigger.

“I realized they had other expertise,” Irivarren recalled.

The research team could help Miski Organics, a Barrie-based company with strong environmental sustainability, and organic and fair-trade practices, commercialize other recipes that upheld those values.

They started with two peanut butter alternatives, made from roasted sacha inchi seed in regular and chocolate flavours, that would be safe for children to pack in school lunches. They also created an organic, gluten-free and vegan pancake and waffle mix.

Working with the CFWI Innovation Centre, Irivarren says, included much collaboration, access to funding sources, regular meetings and progress updates, and finally, prototypes for testing.

“By that time, we had a clear understanding of the capacity of the college to create recipes, the professionalism, the quality of staff, the confidentiality, the steps, which are important, and of course, the knowledge of local suppliers for ingredients,” Irivarren notes. “We developed a good relationship with Ana as well.”

As the sacha inchi spreads and the pancake mix hit the market and grew to become flagship products, the company and College embarked on another project in 2020. This time they would create a new, non-dairy base for ice cream that would star unique super-fruit flavours for those wanting an alternative to the sugary sweet options dominating North American grocery store freezer sections.

Once again, Vega-Lugo led the research team, which includes student researchers, and provided Miski Organics with a detailed report on a potential product for which the company is now working to secure funding and other resources to bring to market.

Meanwhile, the gluten-free beer that started it all continues to progress, with Miski eyeing an August release and more partnerships with the CFWI Innovation Centre.

“It was a challenge for the College. Can we have a beer made out of this grain? They were consistent in their approach and it took a couple of years through the pandemic to work on, but kudos to the College for the creation of this alternative option,” Irivarren says. “Hopefully we can continue working with the College on other things.