Organic Hops Update

USDA organicShould beers labeled USDA Organic be allowed to use non-organic hops? I’ve been trying to answer this question for a few months now. Here’s a background recap on the situation.

Now for an update.

The extended public comment period is open until August 27, 2007. So this debate is still unsettled, which means your participation could make a difference. Here’s where you can file comments. The problem is, I’ve changed my mind, at least partially. I now neither support nor oppose the rule. I want a different option.

I wrote earlier about why I oppose allowing hops a special exemption from being organic. Since then I wrote an in-depth column about this controversy for American Brewer magazine, which will appear in the issue hitting the stands shortly. Doing research for the article, I spoke with Morgan Wolaver, founder of the all-organic Wolaver’s beers (and owner of Otter Creek, the brewery where they are made), and Jon Cadoux, founder and owner of Peak Organic in Maine. Prior to these conversations I had spoken with my friends and co-owners at Seven Bridges, our coop that sells organic brewing supplies including, increasingly, wholesale organic hops, and also with Russ Klisch and others at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, brewers of this Organic ESB.

Wolaver’s WitLakefront publicly opposes the exemption, and Seven Bridges worked closely with folks from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing to file comments opposing the exemption too. Santa Cruz Mountain brews exclusively organic beers and only uses organic hops in them.

Wolaver’s/Otter Creek and Peak have now publicly supported the exemption. Beer writer Lew Bryson recently quoted them in Portfolio magazine defending the exemption in the same terms they did with me for the American Brewer article.

I have confidence that Wolaver and Cadoux are committed to the ideal of using all organic ingredients in their beers. I’ve met Morgan several times over the years and have discussed organic brewing with him a number of times. He got in this business because of a commitment to organic agriculture. I don’t know Jon personally but my interview with him also gave me confidence that he is committed to organics. So, why, I asked them both, do you support the exemption?

The answers are complex and leave room for debate but in a nutshell we are talking about strategy. How can we best stimulate an improved supply of domestic organic hops? By requiring them in organic beers or by trusting the small brewers dedicated to organics to work with growers to develop the supply?

Option one, the small organic brewers argue, would mean that in a practical sense, A-B and Miller (who also has an organic beer now, via their Weinhard’s brand) would quickly use their buying power to purchase all the organic hops they need to fulfill their current brewing requirements. That would leave the small brewers – the ones who pioneered organic brewing and are committed to it over the long haul – high and dry. This could potentially be a devastating blow to their businesses.

Peak Organic

Option two, the exemption-opposers argue, is a essentially a loophole, sending the wrong message to the marketplace. It would provide no incentive for growers to go organic and it would undermine the credibility of organic in the consumers mind – the latter of which is a real concern in the organic movement already.

The solution? How about a rule that requires organic hops but gives a long phase-in time? It takes three years for a hopyard to become certified organic. It will probably take a couple years just to get enough growers interested enough to try it. So, let’s give two years to gather the growers plus three years conversion time, making a nice round five-year transitional phase-in period for the rule. That way A-B and Miller can use their clout to get big growers involved while smaller brewers can work with boutique growers willing to commit to long-term exclusive contracts, thereby helping to ensure that their supply won’t be gobbled up by the big boys while giving the growers insurance that someone is going to buy their new product.

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One Response to Organic Hops Update

  1. Lew Bryson says:

    Chris,
    I lean your way also. Jon and Morgan both put their fingers on a serious issue: ignorance of variety and quality of hops. To many people involved in the organic movement and lobbying activities, hops are simply HOPS, not a wide variety of different strains and uses, from big ‘gorilla’ bittering hops that may have all the aroma and flavor of cat’s piss to delicate aroma hops that may have all the robustness of a snowflake. It’s also, as you point out, not a crop that you can harvest in one year. Simply throwing a switch and requiring 100% organically grown hops immediately will, as Jon Cadoux said to me, largely kill a substantial part of the market for organic malt.

    Of course, as I said in the Portfolio piece, they could just start making organic bocks, and witbiers, and dubbels, and lambics…and to hell with the hops. Who said organic beers have to be IPA?!

    Cheers, Chris.

    Lew Bryson

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