Delicious Organic Brews Offer a Healthier Alternative
Eighty million Americans regularly drink beer, which breaks down to about 23 gallons of the beverage per person every year. One reason the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock was a declining stock of on-board "beere," and beer historian Will Anderson points out that America’s first "help wanted" ad, placed in a London newspaper, offered a place in the colonies for experienced brewers.
Given the recent microbrewing revolution and our growing taste for quality beer (the alcohol of choice for 62 percent of male drinkers and 24 percent of female), it’s not surprising that people would start to get interested in how it’s made. In the last decade, there has been remarkable growth in organic beer (made from organically grown hops, malts, barleys and natural yeast, with no chemical additives or processes) and beer brewed along environmental principles, which can mean everything from 100 percent wind power to hydroponic gardens fed by recycled waste water. To qualify as organic, a beer must start with 95 percent certified ingredients. (Some leeway for non-organic additives is allowed for specialty beers).
In the year ending in June 2001, according to SPINS Natural Track, the organic industry’s sales leader was non-dairy beverages, which includes soft drinks, wine and beer. The category enjoyed 60 percent growth and more than $200 million in sales. "I think the future of organic beer is bright," says Crayne Horton, vice president of Fish Brewing Company in Olympia, Washington, which sells Fish Tale Organic Amber throughout the Northwest. "We’re converting more and more people over to it."
Fish Brewing is no stranger to mixing beer with good causes. Its best-known product is probably Wild Salmon Pale Ale. The ale fetches $5.99 a six-pack, and a portion of the proceeds benefit salmon restoration and watershed protection.
Passing the Taste Test
As the British Telegraph newspaper notes, "Organic beer has to pass the taste test. The finest, greenest credentials count for little if the stuff in the glass is awful." Poor taste was, indeed, a problem with organic wines in the 1990s, though most of those quality problems have been overcome.
The distinguished critics (i.e., beer drinkers) who post their ratings on RateBeer.com give Wolaver’s Pale Ale a 3.9 out of a possible five, citing its "malty base," "snazzy hop bitterness," "wonderful aroma," "gorgeous color" and "well-done balance between malt and hops." Only one of the respondents even mentions that the beer is organic.
Wolaver"s, based in Nevada City, California, makes three certified organic ales (brown, India pale and pale ale) and an organic hard cider. According to Marketing Director John Cusick, the beer is available in 33 states through a unique, decentralized production method. Instead of making the ales at its own brewery in California and then impacting the environment by trucking them across the country, Cusick says the company taps into unused capacity at three existing facilities. Wolaver’s ales are actually brewed at Mendocino Brewery in Ukiah, California, Goose Island in Chicago and Otter Creek in Middlebury, Vermont. None of the breweries are themselves organic, but strict separation of materials and production facilities keeps the certification intact.
"There were hundreds of small-craft beers launched in the mid-1990s," says Cusick, "but a lot of them are out of business now. From the beginning, we saw ourselves as a national company, with a mission to support organic farming regionally and to offer our product to all thirsty Americans." Wolaver’s ales are, at $6.99 a six-pack (and cheaper during four annual sales, one on Earth Day), competitively priced with non-organic brands.
Like many organic brewers, Wolaver’s imports its hops from New Zealand, but in keeping with its mission, the company also supports a small American organic hops operation, which recently harvested its first crop. Organic barley is also U.S.-sourced. Wolaver’s is still most readily available in California, but it is "gearing up for the big jump" into national supermarket chain distribution. A portion of Wolaver’s profits are donated to such causes as the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Colorado’s employee-owned New Belgium Brewing Company has certainly passed the taste test. At the 2001 Great American Beer Festival, it was voted "best mid-sized brewery in the U.S." and walked away with two gold and two bronze medals, for its Trippel Belgian Style Ale and a specialty wood-aged beer called LaFolie.
Although New Belgium’s beers ($6.99 a six-pack) are not organic—President Kim Jordan cites problems with intermittent supplies—the company has bedrock environmental principles. It is the first wind-powered brewery, a practice that eliminates 1,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. All damaged material, from cardboard to plastic shrink wrap, is recycled. The brewery is lit by Sun-tube lights, which diffuse sunlight from the roof dome.
Brew Pubs and Greenhouses
Another innovative organic brew is British Columbia-based Crannñg Ale, which is made with organic malt barley from Saskatchewan and German organic hops. Crannñg sells its beer in five- or 15-gallon kegs, a practice that avoids glass breakage and allows re-circulated water to irrigate its fields and fill animal troughs.
Robert Leopold (a nephew of Sand County Almanac author Aldo Leopold) says his family-owned Leopold Brothers brew pub in Ann Arbor, Michigan aims for "zero waste": It reuses its wastewater and heat in an attached organic greenhouse and recycles its own bottles. Patrons of the comfortable pub look through a large picture window at rows of growing lettuce.
Maryland’s Frederick Brewing, which feeds its waste grain to cows, achieved some notoriety by marketing two popular varieties of hemp-based beer, although the federal government has now moved to outlaw hemp beverages. The large-scale Pacific Western Breweries sells an organic beer called NatureLand, which is made with Bavarian-grown hops and Rocky Mountain spring water. At $6.99 per six-pack, it reports continuing high demand.
Organic beer is also catching on in Europe. German varieties include the bitter Oko-Bier Bücher Pilsner, creamy Riedenburger Organic Lager, Vintage Roots" malty Organic Lager, and the colorful Cannabia Hemp Bavarian (which is made from organic hemp and comes complete with a marijuana leaf on its label). A favorite British organic brand is Brakspear, and Belgium’s sweet and dry Saison Dupont is also highly regarded. Jade Biére, which the Oxford Bottled Beer Database describes as "hazy, pale and golden-colored," with a "bubbly and tenacious head" and a "honey aroma with a hint of floral hops," comes from France.
With $100 to $200 kits available from companies like the Seven Bridges cooperative, you can also make your own organic beer. But don’t get involved unless you’re relatively patient because after fermenting for two to six weeks, the beer needs to sit again after bottling.
Organic beer may be a few years behind organic wine in developing strong
products and a national distribution system, but it is catching up quickly.