Is Organic Beer Worth Drinking?
by Vince Holmes
Finding a craft beer is easy. Finding an organic craft beer? Well, that’s another matter entirely.
Despite the artisanal nature of the craft beer industry, the majority of brewers have opted to
forego obtaining organic certification. But those who have embraced the concept of organic
brewing are quite passionate about it. Organic represents the absence of carcinogenic
pesticides on the ingredients. Hard not to find that a benefit.
Organic craft beer is popular boasting of a 20.7% increase in dollar volume between over the
past year. The category even has it's own showcase event- the North American Organic
Brewers Festival with over three dozen brewers attending.
Just like groceries, organic hops and malts cost more than their non-organic alternatives –
sometimes by as much as 40%. While the overall impact to a brewery’s total bottom line is
much less than that (since ingredient costs are just one part of a brewery’s expenses), it’s still
enough to raise eyebrows, especially for a low margin microbrewery. Those costs, though,
can’t necessarily be passed along to the consumer since the overall beer market is so
Complicating the organic/non-organic craft beer scene are brewers who straddle the line.
While companies like Jester King and (512) Brewing don’t carry the certification, both use a
number of organic ingredients. And some non-organic breweries – like Deschutes – offer
organic beers alongside their other standards.
Whether an organic label ultimately helps sales or not remains unclear. Certainly, no organic
brewery has reached a level of national notoriety among craft beer enthusiasts that’s on par
with a non-organic brewer. But that could be due to fairly limited distribution territories.
Organic beer in the USA has an interesting history. Until January 2013, the major difference
between organic and non-organic beer was the organic barley. Brewers weren’t required to
use organic hops (an ingredient that makes up less than 5 percent of a typical brew) largely
because they simply weren’t readily available. But in 2010, the National Organic Standards
Board announced a change that would take effect three years later meaning of course that
now the hops in organic beer must be organic too.
The point of organic beer is not better taste. So then, why? The organic label purely has to do
with the ingredient strain meaning there is no contamination by petrochemical fertilizers and
pesticides. Agricultural runoff, chemical exposure, and dangers to wildlife are all avoided in
organic farming. The microclimate in the soil, and all the bugs in the soil, which make for a
healthy environment to grow, are present in organic agriculture and are largely lacking in
conventional agriculture. It’s hard to argue with the fact that organic farming is better for the
environment than standard farming practices, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who
thinks protecting workers from dangerous pesticides is a bad thing.
Now before you begin to see organic beer as an environmental savior consider the fact that
how the crops are grown is just one small piece of a brewery’s carbon footprint. When you also
consider packaging, distribution, the brewing process itself, etc., it’s not totally clear that an
organic beer will always have a smaller environmental impact than a non-organic beer. Still, it's
important to remember that organic farming reduces erosion and ground-water pollution and
that it significantly lessens the impact on wildlife.
Prices have gone down as demand for organic ingredients has gone up making organic beer
not as expensive as it once was. Several years ago organic hops were priced at about $20 a
pound while conventional varieties were $6-8 per pound. Current prices of $12-18 per pound
are still more expensive than non-organics, but the cost difference of brewing organically
actually works out to be relatively small: only 8 cents more per pint — just under $10 more per
keg, and less than $20 more per barrel. But even if organic ingredients cost the same as
conventional ones, unless they were also as reliably and readily available, brewers might be
reluctant about changing their sourcing.
Some say you can’t taste the difference others say they easily can. In any event in the end it’s
better for the economy to support small farmers, and it’s better for you to consume healthier
products. What you can rely on organic beer for is to contain safe, healthy and high-quality
ingredients. And in many of them, great taste too.
beernexus.com - SPECIAL REPORT
Guide for opening a craft brewery