Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Green Beer

No, we're not talking the dyed Miller Lite that the Holister crowd downs at the "urban" sports bar on St. Patrick's Day, we're talking environmentally friendly and tasty beer.

You would have to be living in a cave not to have noticed the explosion of the Organic foods movement over the last 10 years. Perhaps partially a reaction to the deluge of chemicals, pesticides, and general industrialization of agriculture, and perhaps part of the overall movement towards environmental sustainability, Organic products are an expanding market growing 16 percent between 2004 and 2005 and expected to grow an additional 11 percent each year through 2010.

Organic farming is nothing new. It has it's genesis in the 1930's, and has enjoyed a new life since the 1970's. As the new organic movement grew there was pressure for the USDA to step in and set a standard in what had been a patchwork of local and state organic certification. The USDA took its first steps in 1990, announcing the option of certification, and then further solidified the rules in 2000.

Although the USDA had been under considerable pressure from agribusiness, for once the government sided with the small guy. Among the practices that large agribusiness wanted to allow for organic food were: irradiation to kill bacteria, genetic modification, the use of sewer sludge as fertilizer. All three were banned by the USDA under the 2000 rules, thanks in a large part to public outcry and the objections of small organic farmers. The USDA went as far as to adopt all of the recommendations of the National Organics Standards Board, including a total ban on antibiotics in animals raised for organic meats.

With the standardization of the rules, and an obvious market demand, organic beers, wines, and spirits were a logical next step. Since all are produced using simple recipes of produce and water, there is nothing to stop producers from introducing organic beverages.

Like traditional foods, the percentage of organic beers to conventional beers is small, but it is growing. Organic beer sales have increased from $9 million in 2003 to $19 million in 2005. While total beer sales fell slightly in 2005, organics increased by 40 percent. The trend was so stark that it caught the attention of the evil empire, Anhueser-Busch, who now produces two different organic beers: Wild Hop lager and Stone Mill pale ale.

While some may look at A-B's entry into the market as a blessing, it could also be a curse. Under current regulations, beverages labeled organic have to contain at least 95% organic ingredients. A-B's organic beers use non-organic hops (they are a small fraction of the total ingredients of the beer despite a large impact on flavor), and A-B is currently lobbying the USDA to add hops to a list of "exemptions" of non-organic things that can be used in organic foods.

A-B's excuse is that the hops are not commercially available. Apparently they didn't talk to Russ Klisch of Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery. Lakefront produces an organic ESB that uses 100% organic hops, and Mr. Klisch has taken availability into his own hands, growing two fields of organic hops to be used in the beer. A-B fails to mention in their petition for the exemption that the majority of their hops for their organic beers come from fields that they own, grown in Idaho. If A-B was actually concerned about the supply of organic hops, they could simply go organic themselves.

I'm assuming that since you are reading this, you are a discerning beer consumer, so I won't recommend that you try the Bud products. Some common, yet craft brewed options come from Butte Creek, of California, and Wolaver's of Vermont. Wolaver's is brewed by Otter Creek Brewing and has a full slate of beers including a witbier, an IPA, and a brown ale. Both Wolaver's and Butte Creek can be found in about 25 states (note: even Wolaver's uses some non-organic hops to supplement its supply; its beers are made 98% organic).

There is, of course, more to being green than simply buying organic. Samuel Smith of the UK produces several organic beers, but to reach you, they have to be shipped across the Atlantic, which means more packaging and more fossil fuels burned in transport. Drinking locally is also a key part of drinking green. Fortunately there are options for those of us in the Midwest as well.

Mentioned earlier was Lakefront Brewing's Organic ESB, from Milwaukee. To me, Lakefront's ESB lacks the balance of a proper ESB. It's too hoppped without enough malt balance. It's not a bad beer, but it's certainly not great. I'm a fan in general of Lakefront beers, but although organic, ESB is one of the weaker offerings. Perhaps now with time and its homegrown hops, Lakefront can improve this one a little.

New Glarus Brewing of Wisconsin has recently released an organic of their own, called New Glarus Organic Revolution. Is Revolution an amber lager or an amber ale? It's colored and amber, and smells like a German lager, but tastes like an ale. It's medium to light bodied, with spicy, grassy hops, and a sweet malt back. I prefer it to Lakefront's organic, but I've had better from New Glarus.

Hopefully as more growers begin to offer organic options for brewers, the variety and quality of organic beers will improve. This is in part driven by market demand, so go into trying organic brews with open eyes and a green thumb. We've come a long way in the organics market, but have much further to go. I give a green thumbs up to those brewers who are leading the pack and repsonding to green beer drinkers.

Cheers to the Pioneers!

Links of Interest:

Organics on Amber's blog
Lakefront Brewing
New Glarus Brewing

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1 comment:

Colin said...

lol @ the first paragraph