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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Follow-Up: Why Drink Organic Beer?

On yesterday's post about the USDA's plan to allow beer called "organic" to be made with conventional hops, Nate MC made this comment:
I'm still trying to figure out why Organic seems to be equated with better, but I have seen no proof of this anywhere. Everything has been anecdotal evidence of a kind of halo effect that makes it seem like a premium product.

Can someone shed some light on why consumers should care about it?
This is an excellent question. The organics movement has long been animated by a group of people who invest in it values and ethics not everyone shares. For some people, industrial farming is in itself an evil and all its fruits tainted. It is therefore reasonable to wonder if the push toward organic beer is a manifestation of this larger agricultural critique.

In comments further down the thread, Matt Swihart from Double Mountain brewing noted that organic barley isn't a huge departure from conventional barley "in that conventional farming of barley requires very little pesticide and nitrogen use. Organic barley and conventional barley have very similar environmental footprints...." So organic malt doesn't advance the ball much.

Hops, on the other hand, are a heavy user of chemicals to treat both pests and disease. This varies by hop strain, and those without much US parentage are generally more vulnerable. Local hops are more resilient--which is why the organic farm in Ashland grows Cascade. But more importantly, crops grown in a monoculture attract the very blights and pests that make the pesticides necessary. Organic growers use strategies that break up monoculture. When I was on the hop tour in the Willamette Valley, Gayle Goschie pointed to a nearby field of flowers that provided predatory insects to combat aphids. The upshot is that organic hop farming eliminates the use of lots of chemical pesticides.

I can't speak to how much organics affect beer quality and taste (though proponents, like Alan Sprints at Hair of the Dog, say it makes better beer), but reducing the reliance on pesticides is reason enough for me. Because hops are such a big part of the equation, I hope the USDA reverses itself and considers "organic beer" to require the use of organic hops.


  1. Thanks for the follow up! I have met Gayle and she is very smart with a long family history in Hops. We attended the same class at Chemeketa for Craft Brewing Production. If I remember correctly though the Organic fields were only a small portion of their operation still.

    I can see your points on reducing pesticides and think that is a great reason to want more Organically grown hops.

    Thanks for the information!

  2. I don't know how true this is, but I have heard that pesticides in tea are especially bad because of how tea is dried and then steeped in hot water. This infusion process, it is said, creates a nice chemical extraction for optimal pesticide delivery to humans.

    It seems to me that hops could be subject to the same criticism, but I imagine that most of the chemicals end up on the leaves and not the flowers.

    Does anyone know?

  3. Not 100% sure, but I believe they spray before the cones develop. But if not, this would be a major issue: the hops are dried and bundled and not treated in any way to remove pesticides.

  4. Just to add my two cents...

    Organic beer doesn't persuade me one way or the other. I buy good beer because it's good beer. I buy beer based on style, or unusual offerings, rarities, or just breweries I'm confident in.

    Frankly, it can sometimes annoy me when brewery is all about plastering "organic" all over their labels, but fails to make a quality product. A lot of times, it just seems like a marketing gimmick to generate sales. Because they know there are consumers out there that see something like "organic" on the label and will instantly grab it.

    Think about Deschutes Organic Green Lakes Ale. In my opinion, one of the worst, regularly bottled 12oz in their lineup, but I assume they brew that beer just to appeal to the crowd that wants only organic beer.

    Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it's all in my head.

  5. No, Matt, you're 100% correct, a lot of people will pick it up just for having "organic" on the label, my mom is a perfect example as she usually only buys "organic" beer.

    I tend to buy mostly organic stuff when available, but like you beer isn't one I'm strict on as there just aren't many options style wise.

    Digging deeper comes another question. Is it better to support your average everyday brewery that buys a few organic products and sells an "organic" beer, or to buy a "non-organic" beer from a brewery like Sierra Nevada or New Belgium that is an all-around "green brewery" sourcing renewable energies?