Brewing Organic Beer Brings Benefits, Challenges
Organic has become a term that has added layers to the production processes in nearly every industry. When it comes to craft breweries, there are a number of organic practices and there is the potential for more. Despite that fact, many craft breweries continue to use the same processes and standards that have been used for decades. If you have been curious about whether it is possible to use more organic, sustainable practices, there are a few things to know that can help you make the decision to brew or not to brew organic beer.
Organic is about having ingredients that aren't grown with chemicals.
A Quick Study in the Regulatory End of the Organic Brewery History
The first time the USDA published guidelines for organic production was in 2000, and it was done under the National Organic Program (NOP). The entire code of organic rules and regulations is part of 7 CFR Part 205. The original guidelines for organic brewing excluded organic hops. The National Organics Standards Board, or NOSB, had hops added to the NOP's National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances.
Following a good bit of political outcry, from both truly organic brewers and members of the public who want organic to mean organic, the NOSB reversed this decision. The decision gave brewers through the end of 2012 to switch to organic hops. On January 1, 2013, the requirement that all brews labeled organic also have organic hops went into effect. For more details on the history of the regulation changes from the organically-driven side, check out the Ecocentric article that focuses on why hops are important to having a legitimate organic label.
The Early Players
The actual history of organic brewing goes back several years before the NOP publications in the early 2000s. The first organic brewers actually got started back in the 1990s when grunge was big and people were beginning to get a bit more environmentally conscious. While it is difficult to point to a single brewer, two breweries have made it known that their interest in organic brewing goes back well before the fad started:
Lakefront Brewing Co. began focusing on organic mixes as early as 1996, and that was when they were said to have started labeling their beers as organic.
Eel River Brewing Co. says they were labeling their brews as organic by 1999.
While there are others who joined the movement during this time, these two brewers are among the most vocal.
With the organic movement being as big as it is, at this point, it is a little harder to say which brewers actually were closer to organic in the early days. However, the NOSB has made certain there is no question about who is organic now.
To some consumers, beer without the organic label is just beer.
Organic Regulations and Benefits - Both Obvious and Odd
Because going over all of the details on organic labeling (from the USDA and TTB to numerous memoranda - of which this is one of the latest) would take a few hours, here is a quick breakdown of the organic label:
100% is the strictest. It requires that all ingredients, including hops, be organic. That means no chemicals or pesticides can be used at any point during the production of the ingredients or the processing aids used to make the final product.
The 'Organic' label is given to brews that have ingredients that are at a minimum of 95% organic. Anything used to make the brew that is not organic has to be on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
The 'Made with Organic' label requires that at least 70% of the ingredients be organic, not including salt and water.
It is expected that 95% is actually close enough for all but the most fanatical organic consumers. If they are unable to obtain the 100% label, most consumers will be forgiving because they understand that some ingredients are harder to obtain according to organic rules and regulations.
Going organic environmentally friendly and a healthier method of producing food and beverages, and consumers know it. While there are some who aim for the organic label for ethical reasons and a desire to cause less damage to the environment, others are more interested in pleasing the consumer market. According to the USDA, consumer interest in organic goods is still growing at a pace that is in the double digits, which has created a demand that affects both farmers and producers alike.