(This originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of American Brewer magazine as my “Brewing a Better World” column.)
As British beer writer Roger Protz says in his Organic Beer Guide: “Drink organic, think organic, and let us live in harmony with nature.” The question is: what is organic beer?
Explosive Growth Bedeviled by Controversy
In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act created a set of National Organic Standards that replaced a diverse set of state-based and private organic certification programs with federal standards managed by a National Organic Program at the US Department of Agriculture. Every year since, the organic industry has grown by a whopping 20% or more, reaching nearly $17 billion last year. However, though the national standards have clearly helped spur spectacular growth, they have also been bedeviled by controversy.
The USDA proposed organic standards allowing the use of genetically modified ingredients, irradiated foods, and toxic sewage sludge on crops. The public response was overwhelmingly opposed and the USDA backed off, prohibiting all three in the final rules. Subsequent rule changes have followed a similar course – the USDA proposes changes the public views as weakening the standards and the USDA abandons the idea.
But organic food is the fastest growing segment of agriculture worldwide and organic products have a higher profit margin than most conventional foods, so corporate players have relentlessly pressured the USDA to alter standards allow them to label more products as organic. Smaller organic farmers and organic food companies have consistently sided with consumer advocacy groups, claiming that they can’t compete against corporations when the rules are “watered down.” In the craft beer movement it’s somewhat akin to the debate about whether a “craft” beer marketed by a global brewing company can honestly be considered “craft.” True craft brewers can’t compete on price against “craft” beers marketed by the big brewers.
The tension between the two organic camps has finally hit the beer industry. Organic beer sales have been increasing even faster than the organic industry as a whole, reaching $19 million in 2005, a 40% increase over the previous year – and that figure doesn’t even count organic sales by Anheuser-Busch who entered the market in 2006. But where corporate profits and environmental advocacy collide, sparks are sure to fly.
Organic Beer Certification
Until recently, certified “USDA Organic” products were allowed to include up to 5% non-organic ingredients. A major complication is that some have interpreted that as a loophole allowing any non-organics to be used as the 5%, while others have claimed that their certifying agents have required them to prove that the non-organic ingredients they use are actually unavailable commercially. Either way, in practical terms this has meant that many brewers have used all or mostly all non-organic hops in their certified organic beers.
However, a USDA rule-change went into effect in May 2007 requiring that all ingredients in USDA Organic products must be organic – with a few exceptions.
The exceptions are ingredients included on the USDA “National List” of substances exempted from the rules (i.e., allowed to be used) as well as some special prohibitions. Some exceptions are “synthetic” ingredients, such as old newspapers, which are allowed in compost used on organic crops; others are prohibited “non-synthetic” ingredients, such as arsenic and strychnine because even though these substances are “natural,” they clearly should not be used in organic food. But where it gets interesting for brewers is another section of the list that includes ingredients “exempted” from the rules based on their lack of “commercial availability.” As the impending rule change approached, a number of brewers “petitioned” to have hops added to the exemption list claiming that they are not sufficiently available commercially.
At first, the National Organic Standards Board (a decision-making body comprised of industry, consumer, and environmental experts) looked ready to refuse the hops petition. Of the 169 substances already on the List, they recommended a mere three changes. Hops were not mentioned. Thus, brewers of organic beers were to be required to switch to organic hops by no later than October 21, 2007.
Just as the rule was scheduled to go into effect, the USDA proposed adding 38 more ingredients to the List – this time including hops. The public was given a mere seven days to comment on this change before the rule would become final. Despite the last minute notice, more than 1,000 comments were filed, nearly all of which opposed the addition of all or most of the 38 ingredients. Many comments specifically opposed adding hops to the List.
Among those against their addition was Lakefront Brewery owner Russ Klisch, whose public comments argued that: “Adding hops to the National List (Section 205.606) would irreparably damage the reputation and credibility and integrity of the organic brewing industry . . . Organic hop varieties are currently available to brewers . . . beer is not beer without hops and organic beer is not organic beer without organic hops . .. Adding hops to the National List offers an unfair competitive advantage to macro-breweries, specifically, Anheuser-Busch. As the oldest continuously bottled and first certified organic beer to be bottled in the United States, Lakefront Brewery has been able to source and brew with certified organic hops for the entire production run since its first batch of Lakefront Organic ESB 12 years ago. Our commitment to the organic industry and organic farming is strong and genuine and we consider Anheuser Busch’s (among others) lobbying attempts to add hops to the National List a threat to organic certification at best and intentionally misleading to consumers at worst. To change the rules midstream to suit the shortsighted demands of a single, powerful entity can only damage the credibility of the Program.”
But some craft brewers, notably Maine-based Peak Organic Brewing, supported the inclusion of hops on the list. When I interviewed him, Peak-founder Jon Cadoux said, “We use organic hops in every beer we make. That said, it is very difficult to source organic hops.” He explained that if hops were not added to the exemption list then the existing supply of organic hops would be insufficient to fulfill all the new demand. Some brewers, particularly bigger ones with more negotiating power (unwilling to bash fellow brewers, Cadoux refused to name names, but Anheuser-Busch is the obvious suspect), would be able to snap up the entire supply, leaving smaller organic brewers high and dry. This would mean the end of business for small organic brewers, according to Cadoux.
Morgan Wolaver, president of Otter Creek brewing, Vermont makers of the Wolaver’s organic beer line, explained the conundrum faced by brewers committed to organics: “There’s been progress made, but not at the speed we need. There were no American farmers growing organic hops. Now we have three or four becoming interested.” The paradox, he says, is that he wants to use organic hops, especially domestically grown ones, but he hasn’t been able to secure a stable supply. Meanwhile, he says about 25% of the hops they use are organic.
The Seven Bridges Cooperative, in Santa Cruz, wholesales 15 varieties of organic hops, in pellet and whole leaf form. But even they have had problems getting a domestic supply. Most organic hops come from New Zealand, and small German, British and Belgian sources exist too, but none of these are available in the quantities that would be needed to fulfill the entire demand that would be created if organic hops were required in organic beers overnight. Hence, Wolaver also supported the addition of hops to the list and expressed the need for brewers like him to double their efforts with farmers to stimulate a solid domestic supply.
Lakefront Brewery has already taken the supply chain into its own hands by commissioning two local partners two grow organic hops in the brewery’s own state of Wisconsin. Likewise, with the mere specter of hops not being added to the list caused Anheuser-Busch to announce in June that they were “now using all organic hops” in their two organic beers. Presumably, a large procurement of organic hops preceded that announcement, and if so, then small brewers using organic hops may already be feeling the pinch on supply.
Where Are We Now?
In late June, the USDA declared the rule change “final” – which included hops on the list – but only on an “interim” basis (how’s that for bureaucratic language?). In other words, hops (and 38 ingredients such as sausage casings from conventionally raised animals, and fish oil containing mercury) are now exempted – which means non-organic hops can be used in beers labeled organic, but they still must comprise no more than 5% of the total product. The reason the “final” ruling is only interim is that so many advocates complained about the brief seven day public comment period that the USDA extended the comment period to August 27, 2007. This article goes into production before the final “final” ruling, but you can visit http://www.beeractivist.com for updates.
Regardless of the outcome of the rule change, one thing is for sure, organic beer looks like it will continue surging in sales. Anheuser-Busch is now in the game with their Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale, and other organic brewers are emerging everywhere, such as the Orlando Brewing Co. in Florida who opened this year to brew exclusively organic beers. The 2007 North American Organic Brewers Festival in Portland, OR featured beers from seventeen organic brewers. The only questions are when or if organic beers will be required to include organic hops, and how the organic hop supply will get up to speed. Until then, organic beer drinkers will have to ask brewers whether they use organic hops or else be content in knowing that at least all the malt is organic but the hops may be produced using conventional chemical agriculture.