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.