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Monday, October 18, 2010

Organic Hop Growers Win Major Battle

A month ago, I blogged about a national regulatory board's decision to allow non-organic hops in beer labeled "organic." It's a little-known kink in the field of organic food that the feds allow small amounts of non-organic ingredients in food certified organic. A month ago, a sub-committee of this agency ruled that hops meet the exemption. Beer made with conventional hops could be labeled "organic."

After hop growers raised a ruckus, though, last week the sub-committee reversed itself. Beginning in 2013, any beer labeled "organic" will have to be made with organic hops. (The lag time will allow hop farmers to increase acreage to meet demand.) The Oregonian featured a detailed article on the issue on today's front page. It's not over, though. The full committee will vote later this month about whether to adopt the rule--though it seems likely to pass. In the original ruling, the vote was unanimous in favor of the exemption, but last week's vote was unanimous in favor of ending it. So that seems hopeful. (If you want to see the documents from the USDA, they're available here.)

For what it's worth, this is an example of how regulation helps businesses. In this case, the regulatory agency is remaining agnostic about whether organic is good or bad; it's merely saying that if you call something "organic," it must actually meet certain guidelines. Consumers can then make an informed choice. As a consequence, the market for organics is transparent, and consumers can express their will with their dollars. That allows organic growers to enter the market even though their product is more expensive, and organic breweries to make beer because organics are available. In an unregulated market, what we'd see instead is a lot of product marked "organic" that wasn't--and no market for actual organic hops.


  1. At first glance, this is more mendacity from the beer industry: pints are less than a pint, dried hops are fresh, one of the critical ingredients in organic beer is not organic.

    But it's also a chicken-and-egg problem. No one grew organic hops when brewers first wanted to make an organic beer. They had to create a demand for them by making a product that was 99% organic by weight.

    In that context, the hop grower quoted in the newspaper article seemed kind of snotty. He wouldn't even be in that business or have a market for organic hops if the brewers hadn't taken the lead and brewed with what was available.

  2. Or you'd have private certification agencies creating the guidelines instead, which you see so much of in the coffee world for example. Government regulation is one way to accomplish this sort of labeling, but not the only one.

  3. Nelson Muntz pointing at Hopworks et al:


    What many people don't realize is that Anheuser-Busch was a major force behind the lobbying to keep hops on the USDA exempt list. Strange bedfellows.

    I've always found it disingenuous at best that tree-hugging brewers would exploit this loophole and conveniently somehow never tell their customers about it. It'll be interesting to see what new loopholes open up, if any.

  4. I wonder what the uninteded consequences of this would be. If the varriety of organic hops are inadequate or the cost just too high on the margin could the use of organic barley go down as a result because breweries can no longer capture the premium associated with being organic and thus dump the ingredients all together?