What Makes Beer Organic?

Since I’ve been talking about Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale, and the fact that it’s being sold to an unsuspecting organic customer, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine exactly what 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.

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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