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Organic Beer and Organic Farming

Regular readers here know I’ve been following the story of Green Valley Brewing Company’s Wild Hop Lager and its true ownership by Anheuser-Busch. One aspect of this emerging story that hasn’t been touched on yet is the beer’s organic pedigree. A-B went the extra mile to have the beer properly certified organic and an insider told me that the label initially met with some problems, but they were ultimately ironed out. Since only a small percentage of beers are certified organic, it bears consideration as to what was the reason for that decision? The answer, I think, revealed itself by Wild Hop Lager’s presence at the Natural Food Expo West last weekend. It now appears likely that the target market for Wild Hop Lager is the craft beer market in general and the organic beer market in specific. Given the relatively small shelf space devoted to beer in the majority of grocery chains and Anheuser-Busch and their distributors’ strong presence on those shelves already, it seems to me the likeliest outcome is that Wild Hop Lager will begin to replace smaller, more local and regional organic beers. I have heard rumors that placement has already been authorized, at least here in California, for Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

So I thought the most logical place to look next was at the Organic Farming Research Foundation, the charity that Anheuser-Busch mentions on the Wild Hop Lager website. In fact, it’s worth looking at the exact language of the website again. Here is what it says:

[w]ith every purchase of Wild Hop Lager, a donation will be made to the Organic Farming Research Foundation to improve and educate people on organic farming practices. Together we can set a better example for future generations.

So I called the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), which is headquartered in Santa Cruz, California. In their own words, the OFRF is a “non-profit whose mission is to sponsor research related to organic farming practices, to disseminate research results to organic farmers and to growers interested in adopting organic production systems, and to educate the public and decision-makers about organic farming issues.” To a man, every person in the organic community I spoke with thinks very highly of the organization and nothing has shaken that impression in my communications with them or from the information gleaned from their website. They appear to be very much what they claim, a friend to the small organic farmer with a focus on the family farmer.

I left a message for Bob Scowcroft, Executive Director of the OFRF, as he is also listed as the media contact for the organization. Happily, he called me back in a few hours. On the phone, he was a very affable man and gave straightforward, thoughtful answers to all of my questions. I asked Scowcroft if he was aware that Anheuser-Busch was the organization behind Green Valley Brewing and Wild Hop Lager. He was aware of that fact. I then asked whether there was any concern about accepting money from A-B, given that the product they were selling did not disclose that it was owned by them. He explained that the origin of gifts to the organization has been the “source of much discussion over the years” and that the board has ultimately decided that the mission of the group is paramount and therefore all gifts are gratefully received. Scowcroft further explained that 75% of their gifts come from about 50 donors. They receive an average of 1,000 donations each year, with about 40-45% from family foundations, about 20-25% from corporations — large and small — about 20% from individuals, and 5-10% from a special grant-making arrangement with the EPA. Frankly, after talking to him — and a few others — I’m convinced we should all be supporting their efforts. Seriously, think about a donation to the OFRF.

I then asked Scowcroft what he could tell me about the nature of Anheuser-Busch’s donation. What he told me was quite interesting. He explained that it was for a fixed amount, not percentage based, and stated it was a “modest, one-time of gift of less than five figures.” So let’s go back to the wording on the website, which reads, “with every purchase of Wild Hop Lager, a donation will be made to the Organic Farming Research Foundation.” That seems contradictory, but in all fairness it’s possible that A-B is intending to make further donations based on actual sales of Wild Hop Lager. Bob Scowcroft was not aware of any arrangement whereby they’d be receiving a percentage of sales in the future, but believes that the door is certainly open for future gifts.

It’s also worth considering what Anheuser-Busch got for their donation. It seems to me they got a lot for a little. They got to align themselves with a very reputable organic charity. They got the illusion of credibility and the immediate perception of being part of that community. When you consider the millions and millions of dollars spent on NASCAR sponsorships, Super Bowl ads, baseball stadium banners, sports of every stripe, festivals, events, and on and on and on, then under ten grand is pretty much, as an old friend of mine used to say, “chump change.” It’s a pretty paltry sum in the grand scheme of things.

Many consumers will see their claims of being organic and the charity promise as further proof, along with the farmer-friendly graphics on the packaging, that their product is worthy of purchase based upon shared values and the emotional response that produces. I certainly know from personal experience that when faced with a decision to purchase two almost identical looking items, if one of them is supporting a charity I like, that information will often be sufficient to make me choose the product that appears more altruistic. But knowing a little bit more now about how that works will in the future make me question other claims of charity support on product labels. So does that damage the organic movement as a whole? It seems like it might. One analogy I can draw is giving money to the homeless. I often used to give my spare change to a beggar on the street. But once I discovered that some of them were con artists or scammers, it gave me pause and I found myself giving less often as a result. So in that case, legitimate homeless persons in perhaps great need did not get the help they might otherwise have received, as a direct result of the unethical actions of others.

Food based on organic farming is currently “2% of the food economy,” Scowcroft told me. I know my family does our part, and we buy organic produce and other goods whenever we can, at the local farmers’ market and grocery stores we frequent. There are a lot of similarities between the organic food movement and the craft beer movement, I think, not least of which is that craft beer accounts for only around 3.5% of the total beer market. Certainly a lot of craft beer drinkers enjoy organic foods, too, and vice versa, no doubt. But I wonder how many organic food consumers would be pleased to know that the organic beer they unsuspectingly bought was produced by the world’s largest brewer in a plant the size of several football fields and not by a small craft brewer, as is the likeliest inference one can draw from the label and graphics on the package.

I thought at this point I’d like to hear the opinion of someone who already makes organic beer. So I spoke to Morgan Wolaver, whose Wolaver’s Organic Ales have been around since 1997, making them the oldest brewer of organic ales in America. Personally, I think he ought to trademark that before Yuengling has a chance to complain. The two of us tried to remember who was older, but we could only come up with breweries no longer in business. I remembered Humes and he came up with Perry’s Organic but that was about it. Anyway, as it turned out he was not only familiar with the OFRF but has been donating to them for many, many years. And over the years, he and his brother have donated at least more than five figures to them. He explained that he continued to do so because of their good work and simply because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Wolaver also echoed my concern that Wild Hop Lager is a “stealth micro” (a term coined by Celebrator publisher Tom Dalldorf to describe a usually contracted beer that effectively hides its true ownership from the general consumer. A prime example would be Oregon Brewing Co., which was owned by Boston Beer Co. and won few friends in the state of Oregon since, despite the name, was not made there.) And that, I think, really is the crux of the issue.

Wolaver explained that in his view the organic market can be roughly divided into two groups of customers, what he calls core consumers and target consumers. Core consumers he defines as essentially hardcore organic product buyers, people who have been buying organic products for years or even decades. They read labels, front and back, and take their buying choices very seriously. Target consumers are more casual about their buying habits, but for various reasons — perhaps philosophical or because it makes them feel better — will make organic purchases whenever practical, convenient or less expensive. So while the average target consumer may or may not be swayed by who owns the product they’re considering for purchase, the core consumer definitely will be. But neither, I think, will be particularly happy if they discover that the organic beer they bought was a stealth micro and the real manufacturer is a giant corporation. I feel quite confident that the core consumer would be outraged but I also think the taget consumer would at least feel conned or deceived. And it is this very fact, I think, that explains A-B’s decision not to label and market this product as one of their own.

In general, the organic and health food market has already been co-opted by large corporations. Tom’s of Maine was recently bought by Colgate-Palmolive, Odwalla is owned by Coke, Kashi and Morningstar Farms is owned by Kellogg, and on and on. But for every one of these acquisitions, another small entrepreneur enters the fray with idealistic vision. So apparently there’s still hope, at least for those us who like to support small and local businesses. Of course, keeping up with the changes in the marketplace is undoubtedly exhausting and probably explains why there are so few core consumers. So it’s into that climate that Wild Hop Lager is being introduced. Will it ultimately be successful? Probably. As H.L. Mencken put it. “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

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