Hop-Ed: Organic Beer Isn’t Worth The Trouble

Photo by Tom Ipri (Flickr).
Written by Alex Wilking

By Alex Wilking
BU News Service

I think organic beer is trivial and a waste of the consumer’s time.

But wait, organic beer exists? Yes, welcome, it’s a thing. Organic beer has to meet the same USDA standards that organic foods do to receive the label, which wasn’t even recognized for beer until 2002. A number of breweries have pumped out organic beers since — Eel River Brewing Company, Lakefront Brewery, and Peak Organic Brewing to name a few — and it’s a trend that’s been steadily rising over the past few years.

Unfortunately, America’s interest doesn’t seem to be waining much. Business Journals reported that organic beer sales reached $41 million in 2009, more than double the sales of organic beer in 2005. These beers can be in one of three categories of organic — “100 Percent Organic” (self-explanatory), “Organic” (at least 95 percent organically-produced ingredients), and “Made with Organic” (at least 70 percent of the ingredients are certified organic). There are other discrepancies I don’t want to bog you down with, but CraftBeer.com did a great dive into the logistics of organic beer if you’re curious.

But think about what goes into making your beer organic. More often than not, you’re paying extra to ensure that all the ingredients in your beer are sourced and grown with care. Sounds great on paper, but do you know how taxing that is one everyone but the consumer? I’m not here to argue about sustainability, which undeniably leads to a better environment. But I don’t personally feel that organic ingredients lead to a better beer. There are other variables to account for, and many of them void the careful consideration put into sourcing organic ingredients.

Take shelf-life and distribution. As a Grist article puts it, beer is essentially an agricultural product made of barley, yeast, and water. Those ingredients parish, so it has to be rushed to stores. Yet for beer to travel onto store shelves, go into bottles and cans, and ultimately settle in the consumer’s fridge, a lot of transportation and energy is required. This can easily leave a carbon crater in its tracks and nullify any hope of helping Mother Earth. Besides, most organic farms are located overseas in places like New Zealand, or in California. For a beer to truly mirror the organic mentality, the brewery should really be close enough to the farm to avoid traveling far.

Obtaining the necessary ingredients for organic beer is easier said than done too. A handful of large companies monopolize the sale and distribution of ingredients to brewers, so a brewery really has to go the extra mile to ensure they’re compiling organic ingredients. That brings obvious plagues with it — organic ingredients are more expensive, there are limited distributors, and everything is sparse in availability.

To combat this reality, brewers have turned to local companies to source their products from, creating a new demand for local malts and hops. These hops and grains aren’t organic, just merely close by. I like the notion of a local brewing operation more than a full switch to organic – more government regulation and a fancy label aren’t the answer to sustainable beer. Working with local companies will likely yield more successful results than focusing exclusively on getting the USDA to sign off on your beer. As that Grist article put it, many farmers close by are using just as considerate of farming techniques to produce their non-organic products. More sustainability, less carbon emissions.

And dare I mention, whether it be organic or not, that your beer still has alcohol in it. And as far as I know, alcohol remains inherently bad for you. If you’re drinking organic beer to stay healthier, GMOs are the least of your problems. Frankly, I can’t taste any difference in an organic beer versus a standard one (a sentiment many share).

So if you are drinking organic, it’s likely just for environmental considerations. But honestly, I’m not convinced that any of these efforts merit the trouble going organic brings. It would be so much cheaper and beneficial for brewers to shift their attention to nearby local producers, and simply make their beer locally-sourced. They’re still supporting the environment, and without the extraneous costs and headaches that come with making a truly organic beer.

I agree that organic is a good thing, but let’s not let a USDA label muddle the immense impact locality and supporting small business has on the world around us.

1 Comment

  • Interesting piece but I tend to disagree. Thankfully now we have a number of options out there when it comes to beer. Full-strength classic lagers, low carb lighter styles, the range of craft options, mid-strength etc etc. All for different occasions. I see having emerging gluten-free and organic beer options as only a bonus for consumers. To me organic means ‘better ingredients’ (less chemical inputs) which I’m willing to pay a slight premium for – as I do when buying yogurts, butters, soft drinks, coffee, chocolate and so on. Better for you doesn’t necessarily mean good for you (as with beer/chocolate/coffee), it simply means better for you. Agree that the environmental net benefits of organic could be argued at present, but in time with growing demand organic ingredients will become more localised and with scale reduce in cost.

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