The ecological and economical impacts of brewing organic beer

Story by Adrienne So // Photograph by

Food is to our generation as music was to the 1960s—resonant with responsibility and meaning. We ask about the provenance of the beef in our gourmet hamburgers. We belong to Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks and grow our own carrots. But most of us don’t imbibe organic microbrews. For the love of barley, whyever not?

It’s only by diving into the complexities of organic beer that we begin to understand that finding a great organic brew isn’t as simple as plucking a beautifully ripened brown ale off a pesticide-free tree. A lot of people tend to be suspicious of the “organic” label, and rightly so. Using the word organic to describe a beverage is about as uninformative as going on a blind date with someone described as “interesting.”

Label Shmable

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) currently recognizes three levels of organic-ness, so to speak. On the first level, beers that are composed of 70–95 percent organic ingredients may carry the label “made with organic ingredients.”

A little further on the hierarchy, an officially recognized organic beer actually only needs to have 95 percent or more organic ingredients. Only a product labeled “100 percent organic” can be trusted to contain absolutely no synthetic inputs. But even then, you have to hold on to a bit of healthy skepticism. “No synthetic inputs” doesn’t necessarily mean that no pesticides were used, just that those pesticides would be deemed “natural” inputs, like the insecticidal soap used by organic farmers to rid their plants of aphids.

Further complicating matters is the fact that not all beers labeled “organic” are certified. Although a brewer can call any beer “organic”—or whatever else he likes, for that matter—the only way a customer can be sure that the beer meets USDA NOP standards is to look for the USDA seal. And the USDA doesn’t enforce those standards itself. Instead, the beers are certified by regional, USDA-accredited organizations. For example, West Coast brewers farther south apply to the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), while Oregon Tilth administers a similar certification process up north. Both organizations certify according to the USDA NOP standards. Applying for certification from either organization allows the brewery to use the USDA certified organic seal on its product.

The paperwork can be intimidating. “That’s one big thing for any organic brewer—there’s a deluge of paper. Especially if you’re [producing] both organic and non-organic products,” said Ted Vivatson, owner of the pioneering all-organic California brewery Eel River Brewing. Filling out all those forms is a challenge above and beyond brewing a fantastic beer with all-organic ingredients.

Other Organic Obstacles

Endless reams of checklists and paperwork are only one of the obstacles explaining why there’s a pronounced lack of organic beers on the market. Another is the high cost of organic ingredients. For breweries already pushing the limit with $12 six-packs, the price increase might be more than customers can handle.

Pat Leavy, the president of the American Organic Hop Grower Association (AOHGA) and owner of the Oregon Hophouse, estimates that organic hops cost two to three times as much as their non-organic counterparts. If you multiply each ingredient’s price by a factor of two, you get the expected result—which is that “an all-organic six-pack of Mirror Pond would cost about 198 percent more to produce than regular Mirror Pond,” according to Peter Skrbeck, the director of finance at Deschutes Brewery.

“We [produce] one of the most expensive beers in the world to make,” Vivatson concurred. “Our ingredients cost more; all of our packaging is recycled and printed with soy-based ink. It all costs more.” Ron Silberstein, brewer and owner of California’s organic ThirstyBear Brewing Company also estimates that the cost to brew his organic beers is about 50 percent higher than for the non-organic variety.

Most brewers cite the lack of affordable, domestically grown hops as the main reason why they haven’t made the switch. “The biggest issue with organics is the sourcing of hops. There just aren’t enough [organic] hops available in the quantity we need,” said Jason Randles, the digital marketing manager for Deschutes Brewery.

The hop vine is a very delicate plant. In the damp Willamette Valley, downy mildew and aphids love to attack the plants; in drier climates like the Yakima Valley in Washington, spider mites are tenacious pests. In the early 1990s, it was impossible to find American farmers willing to grow hops without pesticides.

When some of the first organic breweries started—Wolaver’s Fine Organic Ales in Vermont and Eel River both opened in 1997—most organic hops were grown in New Zealand. The isolated island nation lacked many of the hop plant’s pests.

“We went to Yakima [in 1997] and I said, ‘I’d like to see some organic hops, they literally laughed me out of the room. ‘Who’s going to buy them, you?’”

Hops also take a long time to grow. They’re not like carrots, sown in a couple of minutes and harvested a few months later. Leavy has been growing hops since 1978. Even with almost 30 years of experience under his belt, he didn’t have his first organic crop until 2007. It takes about three years for the land to qualify as organic and then another two for the plants to grow to maturity. “You have to start thinking ahead,” Leavy said.

Moreover, hops influence the flavor of the beer so thoroughly that it’s hard to switch to organic varieties just because they’re organic. Most hop farmers attempt to cultivate hop varieties that are naturally more resistant to affliction, so that they’ll be easier to grow organically. Unfortunately, a sturdy hop might not have the exact flavor or aroma that a brewer is looking for—overlooking the fact that the hop farmer and brewer might have different definitions of the word “sturdy.”

“Organic hops are usually of lower quality than non-organic,” said Skrbek. Besides plant disease and insect damage, “[they have] a ravenous but largely unfilled appetite for nitrogen when grown organically.”

It is so difficult to find organic hops in the United States that the current NOP standards were originally written to compensate for that lack. That is to say, the entire reason that a beer can be labeled “organic” even if it’s made from only 95 percent organic ingredients was because otherwise, importing most of your hops from overseas was too expensive. If a brewery like Sierra Nevada was wealthy enough, sometimes they grew their own. Others, like Eel River, imported their hops from Down Under. But most just did without.

The hard-working American hop grower today, however, would bristle at the idea that a lack of hops is his fault. In 2011, members of the AOHGA grew about 70,700 pounds of organic hops, including popular varieties like Cascade, Fuggle, and Hallertau. “There are more than 10 percent of American hop growers now involved in organic production,” Leavy said. That’s a huge percentage compared to most other agricultural industries.

Leavy also points out that there are more than 40 different types of organic hops currently in production, with more on the way—including some from Leavy’s own breeding program. He argues that if a plant is too delicate to be grown by non-organic methods, perhaps that plant should be retired in favor of others. “In the long run, this [research] is very valuable, not only for organic hop growers and brewers, but for the industry as a whole,” he said, regarding breeding programs. “This is the way toward a healthier hop industry,” he said.

Hoping to resolve the blame game between organic brewers and the hop growers that supply them, the USDA changed its regulations on what constitutes an organic beer. In October 2010, the National Organic Standards Board ruled that hops used in organic beer must be organic as well. The change will take effect on January 1, 2013.

It’s hard to imagine the change coming as a surprise to any brewer. Change.org, the Organic Consumers Association, and the AOHGA have been lobbying the USDA to change the law for years. Those in favor are of the opinion that changing the law will bolster demand, and prove an impetus to organic farmers to get more beer ingredients on the market. Others are skeptical.

“I’m not really for the law next year because I’d like to see a lot more organic farmers out there,” said Vivatson. “But we’ve had our contacts in New Zealand since 1999. For some of these other guys, their whole beer is going to change.”

Whew. Once the hop grower and the brewer have hopped through all these hoops, are they even producing a product that you’d love to drink? Does organic beer taste like pure, honeyed gold?

Even in a rigorous scientific study, it’s notoriously difficult to evaluate the taste of organic versus non-organic items, even when comparing different versions of the same breed of fruit. A produce item’s “organoleptic quality”—that is, any sensory properties like taste, firmness, appearance and aroma—is dependent on such disparate factors as when it’s eaten, how it’s stored, and how the consumer perceives it.

Perhaps the most significant factor affecting a product’s organoleptic quality is whether or not it’s cooked. And unfortunately for organic beer lovers, most studies show that taste differences between organic and non-organic produce disappear once the produce is peeled or cooked.

Even if organic wheat and barley were of higher organoleptic quality than the non-organic versions, boiling and fermenting would probably make a positive or negative taste difference imperceptible. Silberstein describes the difference thusly, saying that “[Organic production] is an environmental choice… more than a taste choice—because beer is a fairly processed product.”

Perhaps preconceptions are enough to carry the day. But in any case, enthusiastic proponents of organic beer all proclaim its various gustatory charms. Craig Nicholls, owner of the now-closed Roots Organic Brewery and founder of the North American Organic Beer Festival, is one of organic beer’s most enthusiastic proponents. “There’s something about an organic beer that is silkier on the palate, and smoother… I feel that organics don’t seem to give you that sluggish ‘hangover’ feeling,” Nicholls said.

“It stands to reason that [organic beers] would taste better,” said Vivatson. “The ingredients aren’t dumbed down and tend to be fresher. But there’s a little bit of prejudice on my part, to be honest.”

Or maybe organic beer drinkers are just more accustomed to the different taste of organic hops, which can vary considerably from their non-organic counterparts. “I can taste a beer that’s labeled ‘organic’ and I just know that the hops in those beers are not organic. You just can’t get that flavor profile with organic hops,” Vivatson said.

For some, the reason to choose organic goes beyond taste and into safety, in order to reduce the chances of ingesting dangerous materials. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistryshows that this practice isn’t entirely unfounded. Pesticide residues on the grains were remarkably reduced after the processes of boiling and fermentation; however, a few marginal traces of pesticide did remain.

But these studies aren’t definitive. A consumer might pick an organic brew in order to reduce the risk of ingesting even the most minimal traces of pesticide. However, organic hops use pesticides as well—albeit natural ones, like insecticidal soaps to combat aphids.

To get hung up on the ingredients and certification of your beer, however, might be to miss the point. There’s plenty a brewery can do to become more sustainable, and plenty of conscientious practices that any customer can support.

But if the main purpose in switching to all-organic operations is to be more sustainable, then there are a lot of other ways to achieve it without spending all of your time and money fretting about one particular kind of hop.

The Avant-Gardes

It’s impossible to talk about sustainable practices without mentioning Sierra Nevada, which remains, in many ways, the gold standard for environmental responsibility on the West Coast. Sierra Nevada is lucky, however, to have the financial means to undertake landmark projects like growing their own organic hops and installing one of the largest privately owned solar panel arrays in the country.

Many other breweries are making inroads with more modest ideas. In a heavily wooded area like Oregon, salvaged lumber is an easily found building material. Deschutes Brewery used reclaimed timber beams to build the bar and tables in its Portland location. They also donate a dollar from every barrel sold to the Deschutes River Conservancy, to restore stream flow on the Middle Deschutes. Both of the Deschutes Brewery pubs, as well as the Eel River Taproom & Grill, serve organic beef that has been fed a diet of spent grain.

But for innovative thinking about how to reduce their environmental impact, it’s hard to be more creative than Alaskan Brewing Co.

“We think that organic principles are very sound, and these breweries are doing a lot of great things,” said Brandon Smith, Alaskan’s brewing operations manager. “But we look at what would make the most sense for us.” While Alaskan might not carry very many organic lines, their remote location has forced them to take more unconventional approaches toward doing more with less.

Breweries at lower latitudes can use biogas or solar power to reduce their use of fossil fuels. But that’s not an option in the wintry north, where the sun disappears every year for months at a time. The folks at Alaskan looked at two separate problems—the mountains of spent grain that are the byproduct of every brewery and the expensive energy they used fueling their boiler—and came up with an ingenious solution.

Many mainland breweries are within driving distance of cattle or dairy farms, and a cow’s multiple stomachs are an efficient and convenient way to dispose of spent grain. Alaskan dried their grains before shipping them to the nearest cattle farms in Seattle and used some of those dried grains as fuel. So why not take it one step further and use the spent grains to fuel a boiler as well? The system, which received a grant from the USDA, is scheduled to be installed later this year.

Alaskan was also the first brewery in the United States to install a mash filter press, which allowed them to save about a half million gallons of water annually. The system has proved so successful that Alaskan found itself fielding calls from the Midwest, where drought—beer is largely water, after all—has local breweries more than a little concerned.

“Every location has its challenges,” said Ashley Johnston, the communications manager at Alaskan. “Sustainability is an introspective process, about seeing for yourself where your challenges are.”

Approached from this perspective, picking and choosing sustainable practices becomes not a laborious matter, but sound business sense. “I’m sure it’s not lost on Sierra Nevada that with [their systems], they’re saving a lot of money,” said Smith. “Sustainability isn’t a hassle. It’s something that can make a good business more profitable.”

Organic or Sustainable?

In the end, it seems there might be a reason why most of us choose not to drink organic beers, even as we rigorously source our apples and potatoes. At this point in the organic movement’s development, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that brewing an organic beer will be worth the inflated price tag. Jumping through hoops means that a brewer spends that much less time crafting perfect beer.

Moreover, if an organic beer costs that much more money and time, a brewery owner’s energies might be more profitably devoted to finding more creative means to be sustainable. At a certain point, the commitment to creating a great beer out of all organic ingredients becomes less a matter of practicing responsible stewardship practices, and more of a marketing ploy in order to garner the consumer-appreciated USDA seal.

“To do it for the marketing aspect is hypocritical, and not good for anybody,” said Vivatson. “Some people do it for the credit. We don’t talk about it a lot, but we do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

And it is. Despite the many stumbles on the path toward going all-organic, most would agree that it’s just the first step towards a healthier agricultural and brewing industry, as well as a healthier planet.

“I like to call it ‘a dynamic puzzle,’” said Christian Ettinger of Oregon’s all organic Hopworks Urban Brewery. “We make decisions every day—if you’re driven by the economics of brewing, you make one decision, but if you’re driven by the environment, you make another. We try to do both. There is a way to make money and change the world doing it.”

And despite whatever expenses or hassles are incurred, Craig Nicholls notes that more than 30 producers of organic beer were certified in 2010, with 2011’s numbers likely to be even higher.

Whether or not the organic craft beer movement gains momentum depends on one thing alone: whether or not the beer tastes great. And the latest iteration of organic beers is proof that for the organic movement, things can only get better from here. Food fads and marketing strategies may come and go—low-fat Snackwell’s, anyone?—but the memory of a great beer stays forever.

“I don’t want to preach like some
medicine show guy,” said Vivatson. “But there’s a reason why we do what we do. This is what our grandparents drank, before it was even called ‘organic.’ It was wholesome, fresh, and flavorful, with a lot of heart and soul.”

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