Gluten-free customers craving a cold beer on game day increasingly have more options.

Next month, MillerCoors, one of the United States’ largest beer brands, will foray into the gluten-free market with the launch of a naturally gluten-free beer. Brewed from brown rice, Coors Peak Copper Lager will be available only in Portland, Oregon and Seattle. This follows on the heels of gluten-free launches from other heavyweight beer producers such as Boston Beer Company and Anheuser-Busch InBev, including hard cider and along with releases from craft producers.

It’s little surprise breweries want in. The gluten-free market, driven by consumers giving up gluten for both medical reasons and perceived health benefits, grew 63 percent from 2012 to 2014 according to the Gluten-free Foods Report from market research agency Mintel.

With awareness of gluten-free exploding among consumers and more products becoming available, restaurants are expanding their gluten-less options beyond food to beverage selections. But as is common with many gluten-free substitutes, restaurants often have to make choices to balance taste and affordability.

“It’s definitely a nice niche for building sales,” says Matt Bittner, general manager of Brixx Wood Fired Pizza in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and a pioneer of the gluten-free beverage program at the Charlotte-based restaurant, which has 21 units in the Southeast. “We’ve seen gluten-free sales increase across the board for the past few years.”

Gluten-free is also an important buzzword for restaurants. According to the 2014 Food Genius Report Healthy and the Health Halo, gluten-free is one of the top three nutrition buzzwords customers want to see on menus.

Brixx offers gluten-free pizza, beer, and cider. The restaurant is also dedicated to the craft brew craze, which grew 18 percent in the first half of 2014 according to the Brewer’s Association.

Bittner says the gluten-free beer realm has also grown, with both local and multimillion-dollar brewers diving into the world of sorghum, buckwheat, and millet brews.

Anheuser-Busch launched a gluten-free option, Redbridge, in 2006. But gluten-free beers have largely remained in the craft beer sector, populated by smaller producers such as New Planet Beer of Colorado and Green’s of Belgium.

The biggest beer producers have tapped the gluten-free market with hard cider instead.

A top-selling cider brand is Angry Orchard, of the Boston Beer Company, which includes the Samuel Adams brands. Anheuser-Busch offers Stella Artois Cidre and Johnny Appleseed Hard Cider.

Most cider is naturally gluten-free and appeals to multiple audiences.

“Guests who are ordering ciders are making their way into the beer category,” says Nick Kegg, marketing director of The Greene Turtle. “Guests who would normally order a cocktail or wine might choose cider.”

The Greene Turtle, with 37 units predominantly in the Mid-Atlantic region, has Angry Orchard Cider on draft at every location and is introducing gluten-free beer bottles. The restaurants also use gluten-free vodka.

Kegg says cider lends itself well to another beverage trend—beer cocktails.

In February, The Greene Turtle will launch a seasonal menu that includes limited-offer beverages for the first time. The menu will feature beer-inspired cocktails and one gluten-free cider cocktail, Kegg says.

The Greene Turtle offers a gluten-free food menu, and the bar menu is marked with GF icons, alerting gluten-aware customers to their options. The staff is trained to educate guests about what is gluten-free and to suggest pairings.

Kegg says in order to support guests and remain relevant, it is important to not only provide gluten-free options, but to make them good options.

Outside of cider, gluten-free beers are gaining quality and expanding into multiple styles, from ales to IPAs to quadrupels, a style of Belgian ale, Bittner says.

“If you pulled the label off and poured it in a glass, you wouldn’t know it’s gluten-free,” Bittner says of great gluten-free brews, like the Estrella Damm Daura of Spain that Brixx stocks.

But the challenge for restaurants is balancing quality and affordability, Bittner adds.

“For a bottle of Daura versus a bottle of Budweiser, what we pay is almost twice the price of regular beer,” he says. “Gluten-free products tend to be a little more expensive because it takes more time and care to make that product.”

To keep prices lower for guests, many restaurants that stock gluten-free beer don’t necessarily stock the best brands.

“But the same goes with beer across the board—you get what you pay for,” Bittner says.

By Sarah Niss

Beverage, Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Health & Nutrition, Industry News, Brixx, Greene Turtle