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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

USDA Deals Organic Hop-Growers a Blow

I received an email about a disturbing development for organic hop growers. Patrick Smith of Loftus Ranches in Yakima wrote a blog post detailing the situation:
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.


  1. 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?

    I know that Hopworks and Pike who both make Organic beers seemed unphased about using non-organic hops last year as it was still within limits set by the USDA for non-organic product in a labelled organic bottle.

    I have to question how much of a benefit, if any there is to organic hops. The only thing I can think of is an impact of chemicals used on the farm lands. Doesn't necessarily mean the hops are better for you.

    I would love to see evidence proving me wrong.

  2. Matt at Double Mountain10:40 AM, September 15, 2010

    The problem is there is extremely limited supply of organic hops, therefore very very hard to produce a 100% organic beer in the current climate. Very much a chicken or the egg scenario. In the light of supply, if organic beer had to be made with organic hops, then the supply of organic beer would plunge as there is not enough crop available in volume or quality.

    In terms of ethicality, i've always felt it disingenuous to label a beer 100% organic when made with conventional hops. It is misleading the consumer as hops are grown under substantial pest pressure while barley is a reasonable "soft" crop to grow in that conventional farming of barley requires very little pesticide and nitrogen use. Organic barley and conventional barley have very similar environmental footprints, the real culprit is transportation. A brewery (and consumer for that matter) wishing to minimize its carbon footprint and impact on the planet is better served to source its raw materials locally. As a whole, most brewers in the Northwest have smaller environmental impacts as the barley and hops can be sourced within a few hundred miles.

    Its also worth noting that brewing is carbon positive. Growing the hops and barley for beer produce more carbon than consumed in the production of the crops and the beverage. What a beautiful thing. Save the planet! drink a beer!


  3. Hmmm....
    "The only thing I can think of is an impact of chemicals used on the farm lands."

    Isn't that enough? Consider where these hops are being grown, and where those pesticides end up. There is plenty of evidence out there regarding the harm pesticides do to Pacific NW salmon. Do a google search for "effects of pesticides on salmon" and you'll find plenty of reliable info.

    I've also seen reports that there are detectable traces of pesticides and herbicides in beer, mostly likely coming from the barley though. Haven't seen anything regarding how much of the pesticides used in hops make it into the final product.

  4. Thanks Jeff for the great write-up.

    I am a hop grower up in Yakima, growing both conventional hops and organic hops, and wrote the post that Jeff graciously linked to.

    Regarding Nate MC's comment, the issue isn't one of organic hops being "better for you". If you are drinking beer for its nutritional value, stop now. ;)

    The issue is one of principle. It's no secret that some conventional farming practices are hard on the environment. Consumers of organic products, including organic beer, often purchase organic products out of principle because they believe in the organic production system. Most of them have no idea that the organic beer they are purchasing is made with conventionally-grown hops and they wouldn't be happy to learn that fact.

    Hops are unique in many ways, but as an agricultural product, it is one of the few that has only one commercially viable use and that one use is as an ingredient in very small proportions of another product. The current organic system allows small amounts of non-organic ingredients in an organic product, and hops are one of these allowed substances, one of only 3 crops that are listed in full. Other allowed substances are derivatives, like celery powder (as opposed to all celery in any form).

    What the hop growers' petition is trying to do is to lay out a process for getting organic brewers to use organic hops. Matt at Double Mountain claims that there isn't enough crop available and I disagree with qualifications. There may not be enough of certain varieties, but for the most part brewers have never attempted to source organic hops because it is so easy (and cheap) to source non-organic hops. If hop growers knew what brewers wanted, we would happily grow it for them. Under the current system, we are resigned to guessing what they want and sitting on tens of thousands of pounds of unsold inventory. That's why I disagree. There are tons of organic hops available that brewers aren't buying. Ask any organic hop grower. Visit for a list of some of us.

    Hopefully some day we will be in a place where all organic beer is brewed with all organic hops because it's the right thing to do for the consumer, the brewer, and the farmer. That's the discussion we are trying to start.

    Patrick Smith
    Loftus Ranches
    Yakima, WA

  5. @ Adam re: Nate --

    Amen! That *is* enough.


  6. Just another case of something getting large, making money and all...

    ...and the Gov't having to extend its reach. That's all. Power, money, control. Simple.

  7. Matt at Double Mountain9:45 AM, September 16, 2010

    I agree with Patrick in that if brewers would contract for organic production, then the supply would be more certain. Unfortunately, the current ruling does not mandate the supply and i agree beer labeled organic should be made with organic hops.

    The strongest argument remains however the best beer is made with highest quality ingredients. Often times that can come from organic and conventional sources.