Beer commercials do much to further this pure visage:
images of crisp, clean water
cascading from beautiful mountain springs;
the use of only the choicest hops;
and barley from beautiful amber fields of grain,
gently swaying in the warm breeze.
What most people probably do not realize,
however, is that
ingredients in beers
often go beyond
these timeless creations
Hops and barley are grown by farmers who often use pesticides and fertilizers in the cultivation of their products. To some degree, these substances are present in many of the beers consumed by the drinking public. In parallel to the demand of greater society, some farmers have begun cultivating hops and barley without the aid of these products, so-called organic farming. Brewing companies, acting either as niche-seekers or as environmentally-concerned corporate citizens, have begun using these organic products to create beers that are free from artificial farming practices.
Interested farmers cannot, however, simply put away the pesticides and fertilizers and suddenly claim to be organic. "Organic" is a labeling term defined under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. There are several organizations which work to certify farmers as organic, in accordance with their published guidelines. These guidelines require the use of materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems, and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. Similarly, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) of Santa Cruz, California, defines organic agriculture as "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity and ecological harmony."
If this sounds a little too confusing and fuzzy, here is what the certification process really means for brewers and farmers alike. To qualify their products as organic, farmers must grow their hops and barley without the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. Farmers must further have not employed such artificial measures on the land for a fixed period of time, normally set at three years. To combat against diseases, organic farmers build healthy soils, fertilized through the use of compost and other biologically based materials. Organic farmers also employ a variety of animals and insects to prevent against pest infestations. OFRF notes that organic agricultural practices cannot guarantee a residue-free product, but that the employment of such methods minimize damage to the eco-system and enhance the integrity of agricultural products.
The certification process does not end with the farmer's fields. The certification-seeking brewery must also meet specific guidelines to qualify as organic. For brewers, who are more accustomed to considering hop schedules than biological cycles, the move towards achieving ecological harmony in the brewery does not require fastidious dedication.
Certification groups, such as the Oregon Tilth, undertake the annual certification process for both brewers and farmers. The process includes a review of records to ensure the brewery maintains a sufficient quantity of organic ingredients to support the amount of beer produced. Similar to all organic food producers, breweries may qualify as organic if at least 95 percent of their raw materials are certified. Brewers can thus brew with certain, limited amounts of special ingredients that cannot be labeled as organic. The certifying organization also inspects the brewery to insure correct storage and cleaning procedures are undertaken.
The certification process further does not carry overwhelming financial or time burdens for farmers and breweries. According to the Oregon Tilth, the entire certification process for a new farm can take up to six months. The process takes about half as long for breweries and other processors of organic materials. There is a flat $399 fee for a first year certification for farms, and the Tilth charges a fraction of a percentage of gross sales for breweries.
The movement towards more environmentally friendly brewing is also found in the political plans of well-organized advocacy organizations. At the Great British Beer Festival in 1999, Sustain, a British advocacy organization in favor of "greener" food and farming, released a report finding that the average hop farmer sprays his crops up to 14 times a year with an average of 15 pesticide products.
On the receiving end of this advocacy, brewers were initially slow to respond to any potential organic market. According to Lori Levy of the Beer Institute, the organic beer movement is far from explosive. Upon a request for data regarding the organic market, the organization was stumped. Levy reported that the institute's research director was only aware of one organic beer producing brewery, and noted that others simply "fly under our radar screen".
While some brewers are concerned with the viability and profitability of this consumer niche, there are a few organic pioneers fighting to prove its value. Proponents of organic products range from those who simply want to take advantage of a profitable consumer niche for organic beers, to devout supporters of full environmental awareness in all aspects of business. This latter category is much more the norm for brewers of organic products. "We feel that going organic is consistent with our commitment to environmental brewing," says Crayne Horton, founder of Fish Brewing of Washington State, in a release for one of his new products.
By far the largest of the organic breweries, and the only one hitting the radar screens for many industry analysts, is the Panorama Brewing Company, producer of the Wolaver's line. The company was founded by a group, including two Wolaver brothers - a former Texas oilman and an organic farmer living in Hawaii, to fuse a family history of farming, a dedication to environmentally friendly business, and a passion for brewing. In an early release, co-founder Robert Wolaver proclaimed that "Wolaver's organic ales are beers with a conscience. We feel this is an excellent opportunity for consumers to enjoy a quality product while promoting an earth-friendly lifestyle." Panorama donates 10 percent of its profits to local and regional nonprofit environmental organizations.
The Wolaver brothers started brewing organic beers not only because of their respective interests in sustainable agriculture, but also because they believed a market existed for the products. "The brothers saw there was a niche that hadn't been filled yet, and it set them on the course," says John Cusick, Panorama's new Marketing Director. "First and foremost, they were looking to do something that would be certified organic. That was their first mission. The way the beer came in is, there were some regional things going on with organics and they sampled some of those beers. They didn't see a national organic beer, and thought there was possibly a good and growing market of potential customers." These so-called "conscious consumers", individuals who are willing to pay a premium for earth-friendly products, served as the basis for a boom in organic products, according to Cusick.
Prospects weren't always so rosy for producers and importers of organic beers. At one point, importers were becoming concerned with the economic viability of their organic products, according to Joe Lipa, Merchant du Vin's Director of East Coast Operations. "We've had Pinkus since 1978, the first brewery in Germany to produce organic beers. And up until four years ago, we were going to give it up. It just wasn't selling. It wasn't the thing to be doing, and was jeopardizing the line's reputation. They pleaded with us not to drop it," Lipa recalls. The importer agreed to change the labels and redesign them and see what happened.
The last-ditch gamble for Pinkus paid off for Merchant du Vin, according to Lipa. "It's the craziest thing. We had to go back this year to ask how much they can produce because the demand is climbing so big." Lipa points to recent British outbreaks of so-called Mad Cow disease and foot and mouth disease as causing some drinkers to re-consider the ingredients in what they drink.
Importers are now looking at the popularity of organic products in other related industries, and believe the same principles could apply to an organic beer market niche. "Restaurants always include some kind of organic salad or organic food to appeal to that clientele," Lipa parallels. According to OFRF, approximately one percent of the US food supply is grown using organic methods. In 1996, this represented over $3.5 billion in retail sales. Industry analysts point to large growth numbers in all organic sectors in support of a movement towards organic beers.
Business in the organic niche has proven profitable for Panorama, Cusick reports. "In the first few years, we saw immediate success at the natural product stores and food chains. They were real home runs for us, and we have done real well through those channels."
Panorama was not just shooting for the stereotypical crunchy, granola-eating conscious-consumer crowd, but for mass appeal, according to Cusick. When asked about Panorama's target market, Cusick explodes the niche by responding, "Everyone. That's one thing that is interesting. We set up distribution channels to send beer to all the places beer should go, and we are just starting to see some real positive interest. A lot of the big chains are beginning to embrace the organic movement."
The cost of certification and maintaining an organic operation has taken a small toll on Panorama's profitability. Cusick concedes that price can be "one of the drawbacks of buying certified organic products." But the brewery has reduced its profit margins in order to keep its certified products at a reasonable price. The Wolaver's line retails at $6.99 during most of the year, with four timed reductions to $5.99.
Despite adding a small premium price, though far from overwhelming compared to other microbrewed products, Panorama has experienced strong growth numbers. The brewing company has seen a 30 to 35% quarterly sales increase, a level Cusick humbly describes as "steady and consistent, but not gangbusters." Cusick points to Vermont as being a strong market for the Wolaver's brand, and states that the popularity of their organic beers are also on the rise in the rest of the New England market.
The brewing company is weary, however, of the ills accompanying over-expansion. Panorama now distributes in 27 states and hopes to hit 30 by the end of June. Through its various contract brewers, Panorama produces around 10,000 barrels a year. "We are fairly comfortable with what we have got. There is some talk about a fourth style, and potentially expanding our cider market." Panorama also has plans to saturate its top markets, including northern California, during the summer with a variety of music festivals and other promotions.
There are other hurdles besides consumer demand and importer concern that are plaguing brewers of organic products. While organically grown barley is in plentiful supply, there is a problematic dirth of organic hops available. As the true seasoning of beers, hops are used by brewers to impart bitter flavors and aromatic essences, and to balance malt sweetness and round out the products. Pests and insects play havoc with hop vines, and farmers have difficulty defending their crops without the use of pesticides and insecticides.
The unavailability of hops has led to an unfortunate limitation on the variety of styles an organic brewer can attempt. The beers typically lean towards reliance on the malted barley, with less dependence on hop character for flavor and aroma. The influence of any hops is mainly to round out the malty sweetness of many organic beers. The Samuel Smith organic product line is a good example of this limitation. The Panorama Brewing Company does produce a pale and an India pale ale, but these beers do not explode with hop character.
The lack of hops is a pressing issue for many organic brewers, according to Panorama's John Cusick. "Currently, there are very few hop farmers, and it is a constant battle to get materials. One of the trickier things is the hops crop is grown very chemically intensive. Initially, a lot of our sources were from New Zealand."
British brewers are experiencing a similar lack of available hops. The Sustain report found that only one hectacre (of 2447 total) of hops was dedicated to organic products in the UK. This single hectacre (1 hectare=2.4 acres) was produced by one individual, fruit farmer Peter Hall. In his statements to Sustain, Hall noted the prohibitive starting costs and capital investment required to begin an organic operation. These costs dissuade many large and small farmers from entering the organic market.
Panorama is now trying to cultivate relationships with American farmers in an attempt to boost availability of organic hops. At the recent First Annual Organic Trade Association Trade Show in Austin, Texas, Panorama's representatives spoke with several family farmers about the possibility of transitioning some of their farm land to organic hop crops. Panorama is also working with hop farmers in Yakima Valley to sponsor the expansion of organic hop agriculture.
A lot of brewers are not waiting for a future expansion of organic hop production and are simply making due with what is available. There are 19 British breweries producing organic-certified beers, according to MDV's Joe Lipa, and one of the best known is their Pinkus line of products. The Pinkus Organic Hefe-weizen presents a dull, hazy orange color, an unfiltered body, and a thick, generous lacy-white head with light clove hints in the nose. This beer has an interesting three part flavor. There is a quick tartness upfront that quickly dissipates, leaving a very light body with almost no perceptible flavor in the middle. There is a gradual infusion of gentle spiciness that ends with a slight underlying bitterness in the finish. The Organic Munster Alt offers a slightly hazy, light-golden color, very light for this style, and an uncharacteristic vegetal, slightly phenolic bouquet. The beer has a sweet pale malt flavor, is highly carbonated and has a grainy finish. The UR-Pils boasts a beautiful creamy, fluffy head, and a distinct, spicy clove nose. The beer is light golden, unfiltered, and is almost wheaty in its lightness. All offerings from Pinkus weigh in at around 5 percent alcohol by volume.
Merchant du Vin also offers an organic lager and ale from Samuel Smiths. The beers are served in an 18.7 ounce Victorian pint bottle, with an ornamented, antique looking label. The ale, certified organic by the UK Soil Association, is golden colored and offers a slight, reserved fruity flavor compared to typical ale styles. The Organic Lager, which boasts a full mouthfeel, is quite hoppy for a lager, with some fruit hints in the beer's flavor and aroma. The hop character is provided by organic Hallertau Perle hops, and has a mildly sweet malt finish, provided by an addition of organic Vienna malt.
In the US, there are a spattering of solid organic products available for erstwhile beer-hunters. By far the most well-known is the Wolaver's Organic Ales line offered by Panorama. The company was formed in 1997, and started brewing in 1998 through a contract agreement with the North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg, California. The company now contracts with several regional brewers, include the Otter Creek Brewing Company for East Coast production, to produce the line of products in small batches for local distribution. The company's beers are certified by the Oregon Tilth, and are also processed in accordance with the California Organic Foods Act of 1990.
My first sampling of the Wolaver's line occurred at the Ybor City Brewing Company in Tampa, Florida, the contract brewer for Panorama's Florida and southern markets. The company's first offering was the Wolaver's Pale Ale, a beer whose malt body is more present than its hop character. While the Pale has more in common with less hoppier products than with those more typical of the style, it was a pleasant, refreshing brew. Wolaver's Brown Ale is brewed more to style, and boasts a slightly sweet and creamy malt base. This is a great representation of the American brown ale style, with a deep reddish-amber hue and a very mild hop balance. The company next offers an India Pale Ale, a nicely balanced and crisp beer that, again, is not overwhelming in hop flavor.
In the Northwest, the Fish Brewing Company of Olympia, Washington, produces two organic beers. The Fish Tail River Run Organic Rye is brewed with organic Pale and Vienna Malts. The brewers have also added a small amount of organic fortified rye malt, whose fruit and spicy flavor balances the sweetness of the other malts, and added organic Hallertauer hops to the boil for a slight bitterness. They recommend this one as a thirst quencher that novices and beer snobs alike will enjoy. The brewers mix up the organic malts a little when they brew the Fish Tale Organic Amber Ale, a Vienna-style amber - using a blend of organic Pale, Munich, Honey, and Crystal malts, which are balanced by the spicy flavor and aroma of the organic Hallertauer hops.
A few other organic products can be found after a bit of a search. The Frederick Brewing Company produces a hemp ale that, in addition to the use of hemp seeds in the brewing process, uses certified organic hops and malt. The Avery Brewing Company of Colorado, Lakefront Brewery of Wisconsin, and Humes Brewing Company of California, all offer organic beers.
While a few solid organic offerings can be found, the brewing industry has been slow to capitalize on environmental concerns and the organic beer market niche. As of yet, consumers have not pushed for organic beers as they have for other products. But with the elevation of environmental interests in the food and beverage industries, and the help of a few pioneering brewers, the organic movement might take a foothold and create a niche for eco-conscious beers.