There's a Tinge of Green in the Glass
"All beers were organic 100 years ago," says Christopher Mark O'Brien, Silver Spring-based author of "Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World."
Today, organic beers are a niche within a niche, constituting probably less than 1 percent of the craft beer segment (which itself produces less than 4 percent of the beer consumed in this country). But the sub-niche is growing rapidly: In 2006, sales totaled $25 million, up 32 percent over the previous year, according to the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass.
To be advertised as organic, beer has to pass muster, just as other foods do. Ingredients must have been grown without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. No irradiation, no GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Certifying organizations may make surprise inspections to make sure brewers aren't commingling organic and non-organic supplies.
Drinking organic beer "is better for your health and better for the planet," O'Brien says, because organic farming builds up the soil and eliminates toxic runoff of chemicals into the watershed.
It's not odd that a natural-foods-focused company such as Whole Foods Market should have its own house brand, Lamar Street Organic Pale Ale. But it's surprising to see such products popping up in Giant Food and Wal-Mart.
"They're not just for tree-huggers; organics have gone mainstream," says Joe Lipa, national sales manager for importer Merchant du Vin, which markets an organic pale ale and lager from the Samuel Smith brewery in Tadcaster, England, and organic pilsner, Hefeweizen and alt beers from Pinkus Mueller in Muenster, Germany. "Young adults read everything on the label. For them, this organic thing is a no-brainer."
Clipper City Brewing in Baltimore is the latest brewery to market "green" beer, reformulating its Oxford Raspberry Wheat Beer as an organic and adding a new product, Oxford Class Organic Amber Ale.
Organic beer doesn't come cheap: Organic malt costs 50 percent more than the regular kind, estimates Clipper City president Hugh Sisson. But the hops are the real bottleneck. The perennial vines are a smorgasbord for fungal and insect pests. Until recently, most organic hops came from a 25-acre farm in New Zealand, so remote as to be accessible only by helicopter. Today, American brewers such as Sisson are also finding organic hops in Germany, and there are experimental plots in several U.S. states where farmers are developing alternatives to dousing their hop crops with chemicals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does offer a loophole, however. Certified organic products may contain up to 5 percent certain non-organic ingredients by dry weight if organic versions are not readily available. Hops are among the ingredients covered.
The loophole raised a ruckus as the USDA was codifying its organic regs last summer, when some brewers claimed that the exemption would damage the credibility of the category.
In the midst of the controversy, Anheuser-Busch changed the formula for its Stone Mill Pale Ale so that it contains 100 percent organic hops. (The label for this light, fruity pale ale lists the brewer as Green Valley Brewing, but that is a bucolic-sounding corporate pseudonym for the brewing giant's Merrimack, N.H., plant.)
Max Oswald, director of sales and marketing for the Wolaver's line of organic ales, says there is "a worldwide shortage of regular hops, which puts a lot of pressure on the organic grower." Some key varieties, he insists, simply can't be had. Both Wolaver's and Peak Organic Brewing use a blend of organic and non-organic hops for their beers, but both say they intend to go 100 percent organic as soon as possible.
The aggressively fruity, resiny hops of the Pacific Northwest are difficult if not impossible to find in organic form. Brewers often substitute organically grown Hallertau, a European variety with a more subdued, floral, spicy character. That's not a bad thing for drinkers who value subtlety over bitterness. Peak Organic Amber Ale, which is brewed with Hallertau and two other hop varieties, is beautifully balanced, with just the right give-and-take between the peppery hops and the sweet caramel malt.
More aggressive styles are available, however. Wolaver's produces a hoppier India pale ale and a richly flavored oatmeal stout with notes of bittersweet chocolate, burnt molasses and a hint of smoke. From the Brasserie Dupont in Belgium comes the sharp, citrusy, thirst-quenching Foret, an organic saison-style ale in 750-milliliter corked bottles.
More choices are on the way. Peak Organic is rolling out a maple oat ale, and Merchant du Vin is introducing Samuel Smith Organic Apple Cider. Wolaver's promises an organic pumpkin ale for the fall.
Though organic beers might be more Earth-friendly, even a dedicated environmentalist such as O'Brien admits that "first and foremost, I would drink a beer because it tastes good."
Greg Kitsock's Beer column appears every other week. He can be reached email@example.com.