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?

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