Sunday, August 17, 2008

Is Organic Better? Part 2

Organic is the new buzzword of the brewing industry. Brewers are rushing to develop new organic ales, and some new brewers are striving for full certification and status of all their products. Mother Earth is happier, people are drinking cleaner and healthier beers, and all is right with the world. But how do they compare in taste to otherwise conventional products?

Organic brewing has been embraced by both large and small brewers. Anheuser-Busch launched its own line of organic beers in 2006 under the names of Green Valley Brewing Company and Crooked Creek Brewing Company. Many independent craft brewers have begun operating with wholly organic ingredients and methods, including Butte Creek Brewing Company of Chico, California, and the longstanding Otter Creek (Wolaver’s) Brewing in Middlebury, Vermont.

Some craft brewers are adding organic products to their otherwise conventional portfolios, such as Green Lakes Organic Ale from Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Oregon. Specialty events such as the North American Organic Brewers Festival are now held regularly. The movement is mature enough that some organic craft brewers have already come and gone, such as the now defunct Healthy Brew out of Fort Worth, Texas.

The organic moniker is not truly a distinct style of beer, as it could apply to any style of beer brewed under these standards. But what has been seen so far in the marketplace are generally mainstream ales such as pale ales, ambers and the occasional mild IPA. This is to be expected for two primary reasons: First, these styles are simple and easy to obtain organic ingredients for and to produce, making them preferable test-market vehicles for a consumer sector still finding its legs. Second, some more complex styles may include ingredients that are not as easy to obtain or as favorably performing as those that fall under the organic umbrella.

For example, roasted malt requires an additional step beyond simple pale malt, that of roasting to obtain a desired color and flavor profile much like coffee beans. This can only add to the expense of an organic malt with its additional handling and processing. Likewise, some adjuncts like Belgian candy sugars or fruit additives may also be more expensive if not more difficult to obtain in organic form, especially for industrial levels of production. It makes sense that brewers would keep this specialty simple at the start.

The primary flaw with organic beers is that many brewers begin with the organic part instead of the beer part. Many organic brewers have either failed outright or produce lackluster beers because they are more focused on meeting ethical and legal standards for organic certification rather than what they should be—that is, brewing a flavorful, competitive beer. For established brewers, a single organic product may be more a reaction to a competitive marketplace than a philosophical choice.

Overall, most organic beers fall short of their “nonorganic” competitive counterparts. From a flavor standpoint, their afterthought status or shortcomings of new and enthusiastic brewers result in (at best) plain and (at worst) dismal beers. The added expense of organic ingredients, as well as the cost of formal certification or membership in organic consortia, can often drive the prices of organic beers beyond what a highly competitive marketplace will bear.

This is not to say that high-quality organic beers cannot be made, nor that companies that make them cannot thrive. Otter Creek has survived since 1998 producing a portfolio of certified organic beers, now distributed coast to coast. Organic beers have won awards, both in their own categories and in direct competition with conventional products. But the brewers must remain focused on producing the best beer possible without sacrificing quality in the name of certification.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Is Organic Better? Part 1

One of the latest trends to hit the U.S. marketplace is the offering of organically produced food, and craft beer is no exception. The rise in sales of organic beers has been meteoric in recent years, with annual jumps in the 40% range based on sales. But is this about a conscientious product or about marketing? Are organic beers better tasting or healthier than “regular” beers?

Being organic can mean different things to different people. For most breweries, there is only their word and reputation that the products advertised as “organic” actually are, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. Some are sanctioned by organic-foods organizations such as the Organic Trade Organization and adhere to their (nonbinding) requirements. The only law in the United States for such products is certification from the USDA National Organic Program, which is a legally enforceable award.

Fundamentally, organic beers are those brewed strictly using source ingredients (primarily malt and hops) that are produced without the application of artificial chemicals for the purpose of herbicide, insecticide or fertilizer. The USDA’s certification allows some commercial leeway as it only requires that 95% of the ingredients be produced with these methods. These requirements have also been extended to include the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as ingredients.

The Green Movement has taken hold of many industries, and brewing is no different. Brewers and producers of brewing ingredients are working in many ways to upgrade their standards of production, storage and delivery. Some do this out of a motivation for better products, some for moral and ethical reasons, and some upgrades are solely in the name of efficiency and for financial benefit. Many times, it is a combination of these reasons.

Long past are the days of crop dusting with DDT. Many industrial farms are now using more green solutions for their day-to-day operations, not to pursue any organic status but simply out of a concern for the environment and to yield a better product. Fertilizers are less toxic and more bio-friendly than they have been in years past. Hop farmers are today more likely to use predatory insects to control pests than chemical insecticides. Craft breweries are now often models of green efficiency, integrating recycling and environmentally friendly practices with wastewater and chemicals as standard practice.

One issue particular to the brewing industry is that beers are not simply grown from the soil. It is comparatively simple to refrain from using nonorganic additives on crops, or to easily substitute one agent for another greener equivalent. But beer is an industrial product, and some portions of its production require otherwise questionable compounds. Water must be cleaned and filtered and, in some cases, chemically treated for proper pH levels advantageous to fermentation. Sanitizers must be used with every step after the boil, as the same environment in which the yeast flourish is also a welcome home for hundreds of other microbial agents.

Fortunately, acceptably green substitutions can be found for all these industrial issues, but thinking of organic beer the same way one thinks about an organic carrot can be misleading. The lines between what is by definition organic and what is simply another product on the shelf are blurring. Obviously, a beer certified organic or produced with all organic ingredients will be relatively free of any harmful chemicals, ostensibly making it a healthier choice. But by how much? With many craft brewers already integrating green practices and higher quality ingredients, the health and safety benefits of the “organic” label become marginal.

But does this make the beer taste better?