Finnish ‘Gluten-Free’ Beer finds New Markets


Mikko Mäkinen stands before a wall of Kukko beer, waiting for the green light to ship to America. Mikko Mäkinen stands before a wall of Kukko beer, waiting for the green light to ship to America.
Finnish gluten-free Kukko (“rooster”) beer is set to be exported to the US after local brewer Laitilan Wirvoitusjuomatehdas signed a contract with Good Life Imports, a company that specialises in bringing European products to the American market.

The idea for the partnership first came to Good Life Imports’ Jason Dyer and Mikko Mäkinen when they worked together at Nokia’s R&D centre in San Diego.

“Jason’s a coeliac and he had run into Kukko beers while travelling to Finland,” Mäkinen recalls. “Whenever someone went to Finland we had to bring Kukko beer back to San Diego for him. There are now some gluten-free beers out there but none of them are as good from a taste perspective as Kukko.”

The duo are in the process of finalising US paperwork that will see the first shipment of beer being sent at the end of the year, and available on shelves in Texas and California in early 2016.

Finding the level

One challenge the duo has faced is that while Kukko beer is considered to be gluten-free by European standards, FDA regulations Stateside have taken a low-risk approach in regards to such labelling.

“In Europe you can call a product gluten-free if it’s below 20 parts per million in terms of gluten content,” Mäkinen explains. “It is pretty much same case in Australia and in many parts of the world. In the US, the FDA took a long time deciding what you can call gluten free and what you cannot.”

Thus Kukko beer will be identified as ‘crafted to reduce gluten’ when it is sold in the States. Distinguishing it from similar products on the market, Kukko is devoid of the chemicals typically used to reduce gluten levels during the brewing process, and is made completely from malted barley.

“Laitilan Wirvoitusjuomatehdas actually didn’t set out to brew a gluten-free beer, they set out to brew a great-tasting beer,” Mäkinen exclaims. “They found this out from a study that was done by the Finnish Coeliac Association together with Alko [the government-run alcohol retail monopoly in Finland], where they tested gluten-free levels of different beers. In that study they found out that the Kukko beers were very low in gluten content.”

The beer was thus awarded the Finnish Coeliac Society’s seal of approval, a European standard which will be retained when it reaches the States.

In good taste

Mäkinen believes they are entering the US market at a perfect time, with awareness of gluten-free products growing rapidly.

“Roughly one per cent of the population has coeliac disease, and around eight per cent of US households buy gluten-free products, because someone in the household or immediate family has coeliac disease,” he explains. “There are reports of up to 30 per cent of consumers in the US right now who are looking for gluten-free products as it is also a little bit of a health trend.”

Nonetheless, Mäkinen is keen to emphasise Kukko’s flavour first.

“Our intention is not to advertise it as a gluten-free beer, but as a great-tasting beer that happens to be gluten-free.”
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