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The gluten free brewer: John O’Brien

Visit Ballarat

18 Feb 2021

Filed underMade of Ballarat

No one likes to be told to stop drinking beer, but when your health is at risk what else is there left to do?

For most of us it would have been incomprehensible. But for Ballarat rebellion John O’Brien, he took it as an opportunity to seek out a solution. 
 
A gap in the market, a lot of trial and error and a man determined to succeed lead to the creation O’Brien Beer – Australia’s first gluten-free beer. 
 
This is John’s story. 

John, your doctor told you “no more beer”, but that wasn’t going to stop you from enjoying something you love. Tell us about this story and how it became the beginnings of O’Brien Beer? 
I thought I was fairly healthy, but looking back I felt tired, bloated and generally lacked energy.  I assumed that was normal.  So, I went to my doctor who tested me for Coeliac Disease after my sister was diagnosed. When my test came back positive, I was focused on doing what I could to make myself feel better, but when the doctor told me I could no longer drink beer, I wasn’t happy. 

I quickly found that there were no Australian gluten-free beers on the market and no international beers that matched up to the taste of a good craft beer, so I decided to brew my own made from millet and sorghum grains. Following some terrible initial attempts (and a fire in the back shed whilst trying to roast some grain), these trial beers became better and better. 

In August 2005 we released O’Brien Pale Ale to the market, Australia’s first commercially brewed gluten free beer. This initial success led to the establishment of the Rebellion Brewery in 2007, with a nod to its roots in Ballarat, and the ongoing development of new and exciting styles of gluten free beer not found anywhere else in the world – like O’Brien Brown Ale, O’Brien Belgian Ale, O’Brien Stout and O’Brien India Pale Ale. The O’Brien Beer range also includes classic styles like O’Brien Premium Lager and O’Brien Pale Ale, as well as the worlds’ first naturally brewed gluten free low alcohol beer. 

 
Was producing gluten free beer difficult? We imagine there was quite a bit of trial and error that took place? In those early days in the back shed, some of those batches were undrinkable.  But over time, they gradually got better and better.  And then, when we tried to scale up to commercial sized brews, the fun began again.  This required some thinking outside of the box and the design and construction of equipment that solved the unique brewing challenges that gluten free grains presented.  Thankfully, my engineering degree and experience came in very handy. 
 
How would you describe gluten beer to someone new to the craft beer scene? 
Gluten free beer is as good as any other craft beer on the market.  Although the use of alternative gluten free grains presents production challenges, it does not take away from the quality of the beer.  We can replicate almost any craft beer on the market. 
 
We hear rebellion and challenging the norm runs in the family.  
My great-great-grandfather – Simon Hanley – and his two brothers fought at the Eureka Stockade.  Simon was only 14 at the time and was armed with a revolver and a pike because he was considered too young to be given a rifle.  The oldest of the three brothers – Michael – received two bullet wounds. 
 
What do you love most about the Ballarat of today? 
The best thing about Ballarat is its vibrant night life, with some fantastic restaurants, hotels, cafes and (of course) bars. 
 
What’s Ballarat’s best kept secret? 
Hop Temple, although it is not much of a secret anymore. 
 
Where are your favourite places to eat in Ballarat? 
Burger Brothers in Wendouree for their unrivalled gluten free burgers and fish and chips.  The Red Lion Hotel for a quality relaxing meal and beer.  And, Oscars Hotel and Café Bar for an evening out. 
 

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The City of Ballarat acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land we live and work on, the Wadawurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung People, and recognises their continuing connection to the land and waterways. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging and extend this to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.