August 28, 2012

Putting the Organic in Organic Beer. ~ Mackenzie Fochs

Organic beer lovers rejoice.

Your favorite organic ale, porter, stout or pilsner will soon be filled with more organic ingredients.

Beginning January 1, 2013, any beer labeled as organic must be made with organic hops. One would think that this should have always been the case. However, to label a product as organic, the product need only contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients.

“Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List, including specific non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website.

Hops are on the approved list until January 1, 2013. The change was put into motion by the American Organic Hop Growers Association (AOHGA). In 2009, they filed a petition with the USDA to require organic hops in organic beer.

“Five, six, seven years ago, there was no organic hop production in the United States…but when growers added organic acreage, it was the AOHGA’s position that there was not enough movement for using organic hops,” said Patrick Leavy, President of AOHGA and head grower at The Oregon Hophouse.

Hops are generally sold by contracts stipulating that X brewery will purchase Y amount of hops at the time of harvest and processing. Historically, one problem in selling organic hops was that contractors were not contracting for organic hops; thus, they did not have much of a presence in the market.

In addition to the lack of market presence, hop growers constantly battle disease, such as downy mildew, and insect pests throughout the growing season. Organic hops require more management than non-organic hops, and this management is more difficult with less powerful methods of control. Because of this, organic hops can be 30 to 50 percent more expensive than non-organic hops, which used to put organic hop growers at a disadvantage when trying to directly compete with non-organic hops.

This price difference makes organic beer more expensive for both the brewers and the end consumer than it would be if non-organic hops were used.

Hoppy Beginnings

Most of the nation’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, namely the Yakima Valley in Washington, where growers are readily shifting to organic hop production. Leavy said that these growers “look at it as something that will improve [the] whole hop growing enterprise; there are things to learn and work with, it pushes [the] envelope, and reflects how progressive younger growers Yakima are.”

Although the majority of hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest (79% of the crop was grown in Washington in 2011), there are other, smaller production sites dappled throughout the upper Midwest as well as on the east coast, as far south as North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Hops, near Asheville, North Carolina, is unique because they were among the first operations to begin growing hops in North Carolina. Rita Pelczar recounted that they selected corn as a basis for soil requirements for their hops because there was no data for hops. They have since been working with North Carolina State University to develop recommendations for growing hops and have it listed as a crop in the state.

In addition to working with N.C. State on recommendations, Pelczar and her partner, John Wright, founded the Southern Appalachian Hops Guild. Pelczar explained that the guild provides a way for growers to share information with each other about “what works and doesn’t work, problems and how to fix them, and encourages networking amongst area hops growers.”

Blue Ridge Hops sells to home brewers and microbreweries in the area; this situation is not uncommon for small-scale hops production. The Oregon Hophouse sells primarily to Wolaver’s in Middlebury, Vermont and to other breweries in Quebec, British Colombia, and California.

Mackenzie Fochs is a writer for Living Green Magazine which informs and educates readers on a range of environmental and lifestyle issues. They balance news stories with articles that highlight nonprofit causes and provide sustainable solutions for individuals, families, businesses, and communities. Their readers come in all shades of green, and want to create a healthy environment for themselves and others. Some people describe Living Green Magazine as the NPR and PBS of green websites.


Editor: Lara C.

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