Organic Beer


Organic brews make headway

Friday, August 10, 2007

The organic label has been emblazoned on everything, from Pop-Tarts to paper towels, and even spirits, wine and beer.

All beer was organic until Prohibition and the advent of modern industrial farming, when pesticides and other practices to increase yields started being applied to growing beer's main ingredients: barley and hops.

A decade ago, the first organic beers hit the market. In 1997, Wolaver's, from Middlebury, Vt., became the first bottled beer to be labeled "organic." Just as with many of the earliest organic wines, the first organic beers were one-dimensional, with thin, flimsy flavors.

But today's organic brews are coming of age. Their flavors compete with conventionally grown counterparts. At last year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo., organic beer took three gold medals, including Best Imperial or Double Red Ale, French or Belgian-Style Saison, and German-Style Pilsner.

Like other microbrews, the complexity and flavor of organic beers vary wildly. Standouts include the full-bodied and flowery Pinkus Organic Hefe-Weizen from Germany and the honey-brown St. Peter's English Ale.

But there's one common denominator that customers are demanding: "It has got to be a quality product," says Craig Wathen, owner of City Beer Store in San Francisco

Sales of organic beer went from $19 million in 2005 to $25 million in 2006, according to Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association.

"Does being organic help a beer sell? Sure," says Wathen. "But people are going to buy organic beers because they're good beers." Organic beers account for 5 percent of sales in his store.

A beer is considered organic if its primary grain, like barley or rice, and specialty ingredients, such as wheat, fruit or chocolate flavorings, have been grown according to U.S. organic standards.

Few beers are 100 percent organic, mainly due to the shortage of organic hops. Hops are susceptible to a powdery mold and are a very difficult crop to grow without chemicals.

"The industry can't really produce brewing-quality hops organically at the scale necessary for the brewing industry," says Dan Del Grande of Bison Brewing in Berkeley, which makes certified organic beer. Many organic hops also suffer from "low flavor characteristics" and a prohibitively high price, he says.

Most organic hops are imported from New Zealand or England. Because brewers have been hampered by the limited availability of American-grown organic hops – Wolaver's president Morgan Wolaver says that his brewery alone buys half of all organic hops available in America – most brewers are forced to use conventional hops, and hence aren't 100 percent organic (see "What is organic beer" below).

"Even if we bought all the organic hops available in America, it still wouldn't be enough for our beer alone," says Wolaver. His is the most widely produced organic microbrew, at 150,000 cases annually.

Despite the difficulties of sourcing organic hops, many brewmasters want to be part of the organic movement.

"We're producing organic beer because it's the right thing to do, bringing what the farmer has done in the field to the consumer's glass," Del Grande says.

Wolaver agrees. "Organic is about a bigger umbrella of sustainability. It's how you run your business and how you treat your employees. We feel it's important to support the farmers (growing grain and hops) to help convert their crops over to organic."

Organic malt – the roasted grain, usually barley, that gives beer its body – is "better than non-organic malt. The organic farmers are able to produce a malt with plumper kernels, getting more output (per acre)," says Del Grande.

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, estimates that 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of organic beer will be produced in the United States this year – about 400,000 cases. "That number could be growing significantly. Every week we're hearing about a small brewery with another organic brand."

Locally, organic brews like Eel River from Fortuna, Butte Creek from Chico, and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing can be found throughout the Bay Area in some specialty stores and bars. Some, like the hops-forward Eel River and Butte Creek IPA's, are excellent – a zesty and hoppy brew of bold fruit with a bite.

Even corporate breweries are adding organic six-packs to the market.

Anheuser-Busch's organic Wild Hop and Stone Mill, and Miller Brewing Co.'s organic incarnation of Oregon's Henry Weinhard's are bubbling onto grocers' shelves nationwide.

Still, being organic doesn't necessarily make a beer green or sustainable. For example, Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville (Mendocino County) powers its beermaking with solar energy, but the brewery is not certified organic. New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colo., has taken steps to cut down on wastewater during production, and built an entirely green processing facility, but that company doesn't sport the organic shield, either.

An organic label is no indication of a brewer's labor practices or energy efficiency. And many beers that are organic add thousands of fuel-guzzling miles through the distribution of their product.

When given the choice between a six-pack of organic Big Beer, and a half-dozen locally crafted microbrews from conventionally grown grain, which option packs the least environmental punch? The pint glass is both half full and half empty.

"In my mind, go local," says City Beer's Wathen. "I have to believe that that's better for the whole process."

On the other hand, Michael Pollan of Berkeley, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," says, "I might go with the big organic beer. … The national brand will be supporting organic production in the (national) market, which is a big plus."

What is organic beer?

An organic label means the beer cannot contain sulfites, or chemical preservatives. The brewery's facilities must also be cleaned without harsh acids or chemical agents. Water is exempted from organic classification. Organic beer falls under the following three categories:

100 percent organic. All malts, hops, yeast and other ingredients are organically grown. Buyer beware: An honest 100 percent organic beer is a rare breed on the shelf.

Organic. The most common classification, this means that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organically grown. The National Organic Program exempts yeast, which is not considered an agricultural product. The same exemption applies to water and salt.

Made with organic ingredients. 70 percent of the ingredients are organic.

Tasting notes

Although organic beers have quality grains and careful, chemical-free brewing in common, they don't share a single, unifying flavor profile.

Eel River IPA Certified Organic, 7% alcohol ($8.99, six-pack of 12-ounce bottles) You'd better love hops, because this brew bites back. Everything here packs a punch, including its bold fruit, mineral and metallic overt
ones and well-rounded malt.

Georg Schneider's Wiesen Edel-Weisse Ale – Organic, 6.2% ($3.79, 550 ml) This entirely yeasty golden blonde has excellent color and brilliant carbonation; the perfect summer wheat beer. Hints of lemon, honey and, yes, even bubble gum, give it a crisp flavor that will make you glad it comes in a size you can share.

North Coast Brewing Company Old Plowshare Organic Stout, 5.7% ($6.99 four-pack of 12-ounce bottles) Good, but not exceptional, this stout has fine, but weak-kneed flavor. Caramelly and malty, it's pleasingly unsweet, and it's tame enough to pair well with cheese and rich foods.

Samuel Smith's Organically Produced Lager Beer, 5% ($3.50, 550 ml) A quintessential workingman's lager that has depth and character compared with others of its class. This British import starts dry, ends with a nip of pure hops and stays crisp throughout.