The Associated Press

LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. - As a child, Craig Belser was diagnosed with celiac disease, a disorder that damaged his intestines whenever he digested anything containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and oats.

He thought he had grown out of the disease until the symptoms - painful stomach cramps, diarrhea and lethargy - came back with a vengeance when he turned 35, suddenly cutting him off from bread, pizza and, most importantly, beer.

"Watching the Super Bowl with a rum fizzy is just not good," said Belser, 41, who lives in suburban Kansas City.

So Belser, a computer programmer-analyst, began experimenting with beer made from grains that don't contain gluten. The result, a sorghum-based lager called Dragon's Gold, is headed to store shelves in late April, providing thousands of Belser's fellow celiacs with a source of safe suds.

"By giving someone a beer, you're giving somebody back a big piece of their lifestyle," said Belser, who co-founded Bard's Tale Beer Co. almost two years ago with fellow celiac, Kevin Seplowitz, after Seplowitz saw Belser's beer recipe on the Internet.

Demand for gluten-free products has grown in recent years as physicians have increasingly diagnosed celiac - now estimated to affect 3 million people in the U.S. - and embraced studies suggesting gluten and similar proteins cause a wide range of illnesses. Considering the potential for cross-contamination, unaffected family members often go gluten-free as well, further expanding the market.

Beer is a recent entry into the product pool. Bard's Tale is only the third U.S. brewery to produce a gluten-free beer and the first to try it with nothing but malted grain.

Lakefront Brewery Inc. of Milwaukee, Wis., makes New Grist out of sorghum and rice, while Ramapo Valley Brewing in Hillburn, N.Y., makes Passover Honey Beer by adding hops to honey and molasses.

"The bar we set was: If it doesn't taste exactly like beer, we won't sell it," Belser said.

Bard's Tale actually is rereleasing its beer.

Dragon's Gold hit the market in 11 states in November 2004 and took off, quickly reaching the limit of the company's 2,400-barrel capacity. Bard's Tale pulled it off the shelves last summer after its contract brewer in New York experienced production problems that caused bottles to explode.

The company is now working with a much larger brewer on the West Coast and expects to hit the ground running at 15,000 barrels and make at least 70,000 barrels by 2011.

That's still minuscule in a domestic beer market that produced more than 205 million barrels last year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. Beer marketers say they don't know how big the gluten-free market is because it's too small and too new.

"It has gone from utterly nothing to something we have written articles on and commercial producers are getting involved in," said Ray Daniels with the Brewers Association, a craft brewing group based in Boulder, Colo., adding that he hadn't even heard of gluten-free beer until fielding a question from a home-brewing enthusiast five years ago.

Still, Daniels said he has tasted African beers made from sorghum and teff, another grain, and is unsure how successful an alternative grain-based beer can be.

"There's a huge challenge there from a flavor view because barley is such an important part of the flavor of beer," he said.

That may not be a large obstacle to a population long denied.

Orlando Segura, national accounts manager for Lakefront Brewery said people drive from all over the country to the brewery to buy New Grist, which has been on the market six months.

"These are people who aren't just on road trips but who haven't had a beer in 20 years or more," said Segura, declining to give production numbers but saying his beer is distributed in 20 states. "Beer is so vital to our culture."

Robert Mitchiner, a network engineer diagnosed as gluten-intolerant last year, recently paid $35 to have a 12-pack of New Grist mailed to him in San Francisco.

"Beer is one of those things you don't miss until it's gone," said Mitchiner, another home-brewer who is developing his own gluten-free beer. "At this point, I don't care if it tastes like a Budweiser, as long as it tastes like beer."

Egon Linzenberg, owner of Ramapo Valley, said his honey beer was originally made four years ago to sidestep the prohibition against using cereals during the Jewish holiday of Passover. But he said it quickly caught on with celiacs.

He said he now has few problems finding distributors, selling about 600 cases every two weeks, and does well in health-food stores and some grocery chains, even for people who can tolerate gluten.

"Soon there will be a gluten-free fad, like low-carb," Linzenberg predicted. "People are understanding that they don't need wheat in their diet."

Back in Lee's Summit, Belser is tinkering with his company's next product, a so-called Tavern Ale, and has plans for sorghum-based pale ales, stouts and porters.

"Our beer audience is a cross-section of the total beer audience," he said. "If I can create a beer with real malt flavor and what beer drinkers are looking for, the entire U.S. is my market."

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On the Net:

Bard's Tale Beer: http://www.bardsbeer.com

Lakefront Brewery: http://www.lakefrontbrewery.com

Ramapo Valley Brewery: http://www.ramapovalleybrewery.com

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