Published on March 13th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans
Organic Beer Brewing
From the Americas to Europe, Asia, and beyond, beer is truly a worldwide passion. What’s more, recent studies suggest that beer, in limited quantities, can even be good for you.
However, it’s even better for you—and for the environment—when you drink locally brewed and organic beer whenever possible.
History of Beer
Beer is one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages—proof of its existence is recorded in the histories of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Produced by the fermentation of sugars derived from a starch source, the most common being barley malt, beer possesses basically the same components as bread, and like bread, is a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates, and is capable of assuming numerous variations, from the palest lager to the heaviest stout.
For centuries, beer was primarily produced by artisan brewers in relatively small batches and distributed locally, but the combined effects of the Industrial Revolution and Prohibition on this age-old practice turned the manufacture of beer into a multinational and corporate affair. Naturally, a mass-produced product suffers in comparison to one made by hand, and the shortcomings became evident when small craft breweries emerged in the U.K. in the late 1970’s. It is said that the microbrewery was born then, but in essence the microbrewery is merely a return to a long-established, though briefly lost, tradition. By the ’80s the trend had spread to the United States, which was desperately in need of alternatives to the bland commercial beers available. Hundreds of small breweries sprouted up and made beer in America interesting again.
Of course, not everyone will be lucky enough to have an organic brewery in his or her neighborhood, and it’s not always easy to decipher the difference between a truly organic beer and the non-organic choices.
The Brewing Craft Today
Today there are somewhere around 1,500 microbreweries in the U.S. dedicated to using premium ingredients to make their beer without added extracts, additives, or preservatives. Many craft brewers are taking another step toward producing better beer by making it organically. Part of what this means for the microbrewer is ingredients used for making the beer are grown on certified organic land without the use of pesticides, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizers. The brewer who supports organic farming helps to counteract soil depletion and other agriculturally devastating processes used in conventional grain farming. And you, as a consumer, support both the organic farmer and the the organic brewer by purchasing the quality organic beer produced by this partnership. By buying beer made locally, you make an even bigger impact by reducing the amount of transportation-related fossil fuels.
Although it might be difficult to imagine that such a small investment as buying a bottle of beer could have such a far-reaching effect, this serves to illustrate the power—and responsibility—that accompanies even the smallest of consumer purchases.
Just by consuming beer that is made in a conscious and sustainable way, you send a powerful message in sustainability’s favor. Simply stated, your choice to buy an organic product reinforces organic practice. Without you to demand the organic product, there is less incentive for the small farmer to take the risk of growing the organic crop. Without you and people like you to support organic farming practices, there would be no increase in the amount of land being farmed sustainably, thus enhancing soil fertility, recovering species diversity, and conserving water. And without the growing trend to keep profits circulating within communities and buy what we need locally, there would be no decrease in the environmental impact of having the things we want imported from half way around the world.
Of course, not everyone will be lucky enough to have an organic brewery in his or her neighborhood, and it’s not always easy to discern the difference between a truly organic beer and the non-organic choices. To be certified “organic,” a beer must be made with organic ingredients following the standards set by the USDA. This process is a lengthy and expensive, and some craft brewers who make their beer organically cannot afford the expense of certification. On the other hand, the current USDA standards allow for a certain amount of wiggle room: organic beers may contain up to 5% non-organic ingredients.
The flower of the hop vine, used as a flavoring and preservative, is an important part of a beer’s makeup, and yet only a very small amount of it is needed to make the beer itself. As a result, even if organic hops aren’t used in a beer, it can still be labeled as a certified organic product. Hops, as a current ingredient on the list of non-organic exceptions approved by the USDA, is currently a subject of much controversy. Challengers of the loophole believe that allowing hops threatens to confuse the meaning and validity of “organic,” thereby diluting the high standards set by proponents of organic practices.
Obtaining certified organic hops is costly because there are very few growers in the U.S.—it is mostly imported from New Zealand. Highly susceptible to mildew, hops is difficult to grow without the help of fungicides, and needs a warm, but very dry, climate to flourish. As a result, most crops grown in the U.S. are not organic. However, the demand for organic hops, fueled by the recent uncertainty over whether hops will remain an ingredient on the USDA’s list of exceptions, has resulted in a new niche of organic hops producers in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and Idaho.
A growing demand for quality ingredients in beer and the other foodstuffs we consume can only lead to a steadily increasing supply of what we have asked for. In this way, we support and encourage the growing movement for whole organic food and beverages, and we support local businesses that enhance our health and our lives, and keep our communities (and our diets) diverse and unique.
Article Contributors: Julie Reid