Session #13: Organic Beer

Lucky number thirteen, the beginning of year two of the Sessions. This time around our host, Chris O’Brien, the Beer Activist, chose a topic near and dear to his heart, organic beer. It’s one I’m fairly familiar with as well. I wrote a feature story on green breweries for All About Beer magazine in January of this year that covered both organic beer and the green ways in which breweries operate. As I’ve been traveling a lot the last few weeks, my session post is a bit of a rehash, let’s call it recycled. That’s more green.

To me, one of the main issues about organic beer is its perception and what exactly makes a beer organic. Unsurprisingly, it’s the ingredients used to make whatever product is going to be called or labeled “organic.” Several years ago, the standards for organic products varied from state to state, but in 2002 the federal government instituted the National Organic Program (NOP) that standardized the requirements for organic labeling nationwide. This made it easier for companies to sell across state lines without having to worry about individual and possibly conflicting standards between states. Some states did complain, of course, because it undermined their own efforts at defining what it means to be an organic product. The standards in Oregon prior to the NOP, for example, were more rigid than the national standard adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But this intervention did make it easier for regional and national breweries to more easily meet the requirements for a larger market.

The USDA does not do the certification process directly, but rather they have “deputized” independent certifying agents, which in some cases do include the former state certifying agencies. Currently, there are about sixty such agencies. Among these are the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and the Oregon Tilth. In addition to the actual certifying, they also investigate noncompliance complaints and check records, monitor label usage, etc. There are now essentially four levels of organic labeling: “100% organic,” “organic,“ “made with organic materials,” and “some organic ingredients.” The differences in these four are listed in the table below:

Organic Labeling Differences
 

100% Organic

Must contain 100 percent organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt.

Organic

Must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt.

Must not contain added sulfites.

May contain up to 5% of:

  1. nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients which are not commercially available in organic form; and/or
  2. other substances, including yeast, allowed by 7 CFR 205.605
Made with Organic Ingredients

Must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt.

Must not contain added sulfites; except that, wine may contain added sulfur dioxide in accordance with 7 CFR 205.605.

May contain up to 30% of:

  1. nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients which are not commercially available in organic form; and/or
  2. other substances, including yeast, allowed by 7 CFR 205.605
Some Organic Ingredients

May contain less than 70% organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt.

May contain over 30% of:

  1. nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients; and/or
  2. other substances, without being limited to those in 7 CFR 205.605

 
 

While this is undoubtedly a good step, the fact that there are four of these and they sound so similar it seems to me this is still confusing for consumers, especially the casual consumer who is not likely to be familiar with the precise differences. The “made with organic ingredients” designation, for example — which only requires 70% of its ingredients to actually be organic — seems to convey a false impression of how organic the product really is, at least in my opinion. A company could use 30% of complete crap and still make a consumer believe their purchase is organically sound. This undermines the very idea of organic products. It seems to me products should either be organic or not. This slippery slope of degrees is bound to cause nothing but confusion and perhaps even ill will. The FDA has approved some sixty plus chemicals for use in the manufacture of beer. Are they all bad? Certainly not, and even craft brewers use some of them on occasion. But health and beer is all about perception. A brewery could theoreticaly use many of them and so long as it’s less than 30% of the total ingredients say their concoction is “made with organic ingredients.”

All beer is in effect natural, especially those that use only the four basic ingredients. This begs the question of how much better is organic beer vs. a typical craft beer? I’d say in the end it has to do with how it makes the customer feel on an emotional level. I think that’s true of almost all organic products. People buy them because it makes them feel good, like they’re doing something good, both for themselves, the environment and perhaps even society as a whole. They feel like they’re helping out small farmers. This is why the labeling is so important. And not just the organic designation but also the truthiness of the entire package. A customer should be able to feel good about what they’re buying, but if details are left out — no matter how legal it is to do so — then this damages the emotional response that is so central to buying organic.

This is the very reason big companies hide behind dba’s and buy up health food companies. Colgate recently bought Tom’s of Maine. Will that make Tom’s a bad product now? Probably not, unless Colgate takes over production and relaxes standards. But some people will likely still think twice about buying Tom’s knowing it’s just another product line in Colgate’s massive portfolio. It’s all a matter of what perception will be created in the mind of the consumer based on that new information and what the change of ownership means to them. Some may not care at all, of course. But what happens if this information is not disclosed on Tom’s packaging? At that point it goes beyond simple ignorance and becomes a calculated lie-by-omission.

There will almost certainly continue to be a market for organic and healthier products that maintain a small niche within the wider market. What will allow it to grow is directly proportional to the confidence that the market has for the products within the niche market. That’s the exact reason the labeling standards are so important. But doing the minimum required for purely business reasons in order to sell a product is just not enough. Common sense standards will also have to be adhered to as well in order to gain customer confidence. This will vary from company to company but makes sense in relation to the product. For example, an organic farmer who refrains from using pesticides but hires slave labor would not be adhering to a common sense standard, in my opinion.

By and large, I think the majority of organic beers available today do adhere to a good set of standards, both the mandated ones and the common sense ones. But as larger companies begin to compete for these niche markets, the line becomes blurred. Some will leave the smaller companies they’ve purchased alone and some will swallow them whole. New ones created within larger companies will suffer the same problems. And then who knows what will happen to common sense standards.

There’s a great series of charts on Michigan State’s website showing how many organic products of all stripes are currently owned by large corporations hedging their bets and trying to appear socially conscious.

 

Excerpted from my All About Beer article:

The problem with the USDA’s definition is that every beer is 5% alcohol and roughly 95% water plus a fractional amount of flavor compounds (including vitamins, minerals and trace elements), dietary fiber, carbohydrates, hop oils and resins, and proteins. When brewing beer, for every 10 pounds of malt, only a few ounces of hops are used, almost regardless of style. This means that a beer could use organic barley and no organic hops and still technically fit the USDA’s organic definition, as long as the USDA has been satisfied that the particular type of hops used in the beer is “not commercially available in organic form.”

Until very recently, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ingredients that organic companies were claiming weren’t available organically and, therefore, a non-organic substitute could be used. But there’s a difference between allowable and acceptable, and consumers supporting organic products precisely because they were better for the environment began complaining that the distinction was being blurred. By allowing goods to be called “organic” that contained non-organic ingredients it was creating confusion as to exactly what was being offered for sale. This consumer backlash forced the USDA to change their policy and limit the number of items that could be substituted and still be called organic. After a public debate, the number of ingredients that could be substituted was fixed at 38, with hops still on the list.

So when it comes to organic beer, hops have become the crux of the debate. There was a time when the only available organic malts were pale and crystal malts, but today almost any common malt is available organically. Organic hops, on the other hand, remain more elusive. Hops are a fragile crop, susceptible to many pests, fungi and mildew problems. Today virtually all hops are grown in just three states: Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Pesticides and fertilizers have greatly enhanced yields, and hop growers have developed varieties with better yields and that are disease resistant. Many of these varieties have become an integral part of beer’s wide array of styles. Certain hop varieties have become associated with specific styles, making it all but impossible to use a substitute and get the desired results. You may be able to make a pilsner without Saaz hops or an American pale ale without Cascades, but they won’t taste quite right.

Of the roughly fifty common hop varieties, only about one-fifth have shown the potential to be viable organic crops. Stephen Carpenter, great-great-grandson of the Yakima Valley’s first hop grower, tried unsuccessfully to grow the very popular Cascade hops organically. For many years, organic hops were available primarily from New Zealand, with as much as 80% of all organic hops grown by a single farmer, the Oldham family, on 25 acres.

Last year, Anheuser-Busch entered the organic market with two brands, Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale. During the public debate on labeling, they were strongly criticized for not using 100% organic hops by misguided consumer groups who believed that if you are big enough and have enough money then it should be easy enough for you to get whatever you want, including organic hops. But the hops business doesn’t work like that. Hop growers are just beginning to come out of a decade-long down cycle that has seen many leave the business just as demand for hops is on the rise. By every account, there is a worldwide hop shortage that has no easy solutions. Unfortunately, A-B bowed to public pressure and announced their organic beers would be made with 100% organic hops. Even they’re unsure where a steady supply of hops is likely to come from. Thanks to A-B’s having been forced into this decision by consumer groups, small craft brewers who make organic beer may very well have a much tougher time finding organic hops and even staying in business because what hops may be available will be at least twice as expensive as conventionally grown varieties. According to Morgan Wolaver, founder of Wolaver’s Organic Ales, this is perhaps organic beer’s biggest challenge. “We need to find an answer to these crop issues, because the controversy will not simply go away. If a beer is made with 100% of the more expensive organic hops, will consumers be willing to spend another dollar per six-pack?”

So that’s my recycled three cents on organic beer, most of it written before today but in one place for the first time, so that should count for something.

 
Below is a list of many of the organic beers and beer producers available today.

Some Organic Beer Producers
 

Domestic Organic Breweries

 
 

Domestic Organic Beers

 
 

Organic Breweries Abroad

 
 

Organic Beers Abroad

 

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