On September 3, 2010 the Handling Committee of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (“NOSB”) dealt a massive blow to the fledgling United States organic hop industry and the American Organic Hop Grower Association ("AOHGA") in voting 6-0 to recommend that hops remain one of only 3 whole crops on the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances” entirely allowed in non-organic form to be used in the production of a product labeled "organic."This needs a little unpacking. In order to be certified organic, food needs to include mostly organic materials, but may contain a tiny amount of conventionally-grown ingredients. This is the case with beer; to be certified organic, beer can be made with conventional hops. For beer geeks, this has always been puzzling, given that hops are such a critical element in beer and one of only two crop ingredients in the finished product. But so it is.
The decision isn't final yet; the "Handling Committee" mentioned above has made this recommendation to the full NOSB. If they accept it when they meet next month, it will effectively codify the rule allowing conventional hops in organic beer. The implications for the hop-grower are bleak. Patrick explains:
Like many organically grown agricultural products, organic hop production is considerably more expensive than non-organic hop production. Consequently, organically-produced hops are priced higher than non-organically produced hops of the same variety, giving brewers an immediate incentive to work around the system and use non-organic hops in their organic beers.... It’s not surprising then that the market for organic hops is mostly non-existent. Organic hop producers are currently growing organic hops because they believe in the principle of organic production, but because there is no significant market for their product, the growers have consistently lost money while hoping that someday there will be a market for organic hops.In other words, if a beer can be certified organic with conventional hops, why would a brewer pay extra to buy organic hops? The implications for the organic hop-farmer are obvious. For those who want 100% organic beer--including organic hops--this is also a major blow. I encourage you to go read Patrick's full post, which has more information and a richer description of the plight of organic hop growers.
To add one editorial comment: this isn't necessarily the end of the story. Even if the NOSB decides to follow this course, consumers have the final word. My suspicion is that almost no one realizes that "organic beer" is made with conventional hops. To the extent organic beer has a market and a receptive audience, it almost surely has a market for fully-organic beer. It's my hope that brewers will continue to purchase organic hops and help publicize the the issue. The market will reward brewers that go above the standard, and advertising the fact that certain beer is 100% organic will raise awareness on this issue. I am a supporter of organics and hope that a market develops for beer made with organic hops. The craft beer community may have to make it happen on our own. So: hop growers, continue to grow organic; brewers, buy those hops; and consumers, join me in buying that beer.