We're Hoppin Mad. Are You Hoppin Mad.

Jason Hill, Wine & Beer Buyer, and Manager of the Near West Side Store

HopsAre you enjoying the organic beer that you drink?  Would you enjoy it as much if you knew that the hops which give it flavor and aroma and that crisp, refreshing smack might have been grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides which are usually forbidden in the production of organic produce?  Do you think “organic” should mean “grown and processed without the use of artificial chemicals and pesticides”?  Do you believe the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should hold organic brewers to this standard?

I do, but right now that’s not what’s happening.  A little over a month ago I stumbled across an (already dated) article concerning the listing of hops on a schedule of ingredients exempted from organic growing requirements when used in “organic” beers.  I’ve done a little more research in the last month, hoping to find out which beers we sell as organic actually use only organic hops.  Right now I can say with certainty that Lakefront Brewing’s Organic Extra Special Bitter (ESB) is brewed with only organic hops.  I am waiting to hear back on a bunch of other beers, but I fear that the information will not be readily available any time soon.  Most of the answers I have received have been along the lines of, “Well, we can’t really say for sure that all of the hops in this organic beer are in fact organic.”

How did we get here?  Well, the short and perhaps stilted version of the story is that organic beer is a growth category in the beer world.  It’s not a big category, but with beer sales flat in this country for almost three years any chance to grow sales is worth exploring.  Hence, the big breweries, like Anheuser-Busch, Molson-Coors and Miller SAB are interested in producing organic beer on a larger scale than the craft-brewing movement has heretofore achieved.  Because of this, some argue, there is a scarcity of organic hops available to support the many brewing operations hoping to produce organic beer.  Some of these brewers have lobbied the USDA for a softening of the rules.  Right now we are nearing the end of a temporary period where hops are in fact listed on the schedule of ingredients exempted from organic requirements.  Supporters of listing hops on the schedule (referred to as the “National List”) point out that hops are a small percentage of the overall composition of a glass of beer.  Other brewers and concerned citizens are convinced this is yet another incursion by “industrial organic” producers more focused on cutting costs and flooding market niches than on safe and sustainable practices.

I am keenly interested to see how this turns out.  I will keep updating here on the Bloomingblog as the organic hop saga develops.  In the meantime, I give below just three pieces of the growing literature building around this issue.

Jason Hill

From the Federal Register:

Hops (Humulus lupulus). Hops was petitioned for use as a non-organic
agricultural ingredient in or on processed products labeled as
‘‘organic.’’ Hops are a primary ingredient used in brewing beer. Several
varieties of hops are used in the manufacture of beer products. Although
the final brewing product is regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco &
Firearms, hops are processed and packaged according to FDA (21 CFR
110), Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing or
Holding Human Food. As used for the brewing process, hops form varieties
include whole hops, hop pellets, hop powder pellets, modified hop powder
pellets or hops extract. Hops contribute unique flavors and aroma to brewing,
and may serve as a natural stabilizer.  While hops are grown in diverse
agricultural regions, hop varieties vary in flavor and aroma characteristics, and
are selected based upon the unique characteristics contributed to brewing.
Due to these unique characteristics that are contributed to a specific brewing
process, brewers cannot interchange hop varieties should a selected variety
be commercially unavailable without significant changes in the final product.
At its March 27–29, 2007, meeting in Washington, DC, the NOSB
recommended adding hops to the National List for use in organic handling
as a non-organic agricultural ingredient where the organic form of hops is
considered commercially unavailable.  In this open meeting, the NOSB
evaluated hops against evaluation criteria established by 7 U.S.C. 6517 and
6518 of the OFPA and NOP criteria (72 FR 2167) on commercial availability,
received public comment, and concluded that hops is consistent with
OFPA evaluation criteria and NOP commercial availability criteria.
Therefore, in response to the NOSB recommendation regarding the use of
hops in organic handling, the Secretary proposes to amend § 205.606 of the
National List regulations to allow hops as a non-organically produced
agricultural product allowed as an ingredient in or on processed products
labeled as ‘‘organic.’’

Federal Register
Vol. 72, No. 93
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

From Chris O’Brien’s Beer Activist blog
(subtitled “drink beer, save the world”)
RE: Docket No. AMS-TM-07-0032; TM-07-05
March 16, 2007
To the Review Board,
Please let this letter serve as a registration AGAINST the petitioned addition of Hops to the National List (Section 205.606)
To summarize:
•    Organic beer should not be classified as “organic” without the use of certified organic hops
•    Adding hops to the National List (Section 205.606) would irreparably damage the reputation and credibility and integrity of the organic brewing industry
•    Adding hops to the National List (Section 205.606) would diminish consumer confidence in the organic certification model
•    Adding hops to the National List (Section 205.606) would dismantle the organic hop farming industry in the United States, making organic U.S. brewers completely reliant upon imported organic hops
•    Organic hop varieties are currently available to brewers of all scales but not at the prices that producers and brokers would prefer. For example, As of May 21, 2007- the day of this submission Freshops had inventory of 5 varieties of organic hops and the ability to source 3 other varieties.
•    Organic hops are available in multiple varieties sufficient for production of 90% of beer currently made in the United States
•    Quality of organic hops is variable as in every other agricultural product and susceptible to fluctuations in price and availability as are organic malted barley and organic wheat, the primary non-water ingredients in organic beer
•    Hops generally constitute less than 5% of a beer’s total volume but account for at least 50% of the flavor profile- beer is not beer without hops and organic beer is not organic beer without organic hops
•    Adding hops to the National List (section 205.606) would make the U.S. organic breweries uncompetitive in the international beer marketplace as overseas brewers continue to develop new styles of award winning and highly successful organic beer including but not limited to Coopers (Australia) and Samuel Smith (U.K.)
•    Adding hops to the National List offers an unfair competitive advantage to macro-breweries, specifically, Anheuser Busch. As the oldest continuously bottled and first certified organic beer to be bottled in the United States, Lakefront Brewery has been able to source and brew with certified organic hops for the entire production run since its first batch of Lakefront Organic ESB 12 years ago. Our commitment to the organic industry and organic farming is strong and genuine and we consider Anheuser Busch’s (among others) lobbying attempts to add hops to the National List a threat to organic certification at best and intentionally misleading to consumers at worst. To change the rules midstream to suit the shortsighted demands of a single, powerful entity can only damage the credibility of the Program.
In response to the items submitted on behalf of other breweries, we respectfully and strongly disagree with the conclusions reached in questions 1, 2, 4, 5a and 5e of Category 4 of the NOSB Evaluation Criteria for Substances added to the National List. (section 205.606).
Regarding Questions 1 and 2:
Although not all varieties of hops are currently grown organically, many styles and types of beer can be brewed with organic hops that are commercially available. Most of the organic hops available are for lager beers which means that over 90% of the beer consumed in the United States can be made from the styles of organic hops that are available.
Craft brewers typically make specific styles of beer that may require a specific variety of hop. Although not every variety of hop is available organically yet, it would be unreasonable to propose that all varieties of the dozens of varieties of hops must be grown before they can be called organic. Organic brewers are experiencing increased demand for their product and there will be a much greater incentive for organic growers to grow more organic barley and hops in the United States, which will not only help the U.S. agricultural industry, but also help to reduce the amount of oil consumed in transportation of organic hops from other countries.
100% organic beer offers not just the environmentally conscious consumer a better alternative, but also provides many benefits beyond including:
•    fewer harmful substances introduced into the environment and food system
•    producing beer with organic hops and grains supports a domestic farm system and enhances soil fertility
•    growing organic hops will increase species diversity and sustainability
•    conserves water and produces fewer greenhouse gases
•    increases choices and options of different varieties and styles of beer for consumers
•    strengthens the U.S. organic agricultural industry, making organic U.S. farmers competitive with organic hop farmers in New Zealand and Germany and conventional hop growers in China
•    better tasting beer, truer to the recipes and styles of beer developed centuries before inorganic farming
Regarding Questions 4 and 5a:
Currently, most of the hops in the United States are grown in the Pacific Northwest. However, there are many areas of the country that have successfully grown hops in the past such as Wisconsin and New York. If organic hops are grown and have historically been grown in these disparate regions, clearly any plagues by pests or fungal diseases will not affect the crop in the Pacific Northwest or vice versa. Historically, hops for brewing have been cultivated in New England since the early 1600’s and in the Midwest since the 1800’s.
Wisconsin’s Sauk County alone produced over 1.2 million pounds of hops between the years of 1867 and 1869, all without the “benefit” of modern pesticides and inorganic fertilizers.* (Jerrold F. Hilton, Hops: The Essence of Beer 1994)
As far as the difficulty of producing hops organically versus conventional methods due to pests and disease, there are established organic methods of dealing with those problems specifically geared toward hop production. The ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service is one of many resources, references and publications for organic hop growers. There is hardly a crop grown in the United States that is not susceptible to insect or fungal diseases. The organic farmer has always found a way to deal with these problems and grow their crops successfully.
It is factually and historically incorrect to imply that hops traveling long distances are easily contaminated. Hops grown in Europe, New Zealand and China are constantly shipped to brewers in the United States without any contamination problems. Our brewery has used hops from New Zealand for a dozen years and they have never experienced any contamination problems.
At this time, we are working with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute of Wisconsin as well as other organic farmers in Wisconsin to redevelop organic hop cultivation in the upper Midwest. The Michael Fields Institute is devoted to developing agricultural techniques to sustain the land and its resources and to cultivate the ecological, social, economic and spiritual vitality of food and farming systems through education, research, policy and market development. Successful organic hop production in other countries, including Germany and England is done on small, high yield intensive plots among multiple, independent farmers and the model being put forth by large macro-breweries is mainly geared toward a commercial, large scale style of production owned by a single individual or commercial entity not necessarily suited to organic style production in the first place.
The market and model for organic cultivation of hops exists.  Why destroy it? Breweries producing genuine organic beers should be doubling their efforts to developing organic hop resources before they try to change the rules to suit their shortsighted and narrow view of what constitutes organic production.
Regarding Question 5e:
Concerning the comment about “regulatory challenges,” we do not know of an industry in the United States that does not have “regulatory challenges.” The report submitted by Peak Brewing Co. does not state what these challenges are, and we would have to assume that these are just normal business challenges and should not play a part in this report.
We were certified organic in May of 1996 and since that time, we have used 100% organic hops in all of our organic beers and barleywine. If we can do it, we think Anheuser Busch, the world’s largest beer producer with virtually unlimited resources should be able to follow our example. Our experience in the industry supports this belief and our business confirms that the addition would irreparably harm the hard-earned credibility of the standard and diminish the trust that consumers have in the USDA Organic seal. We feel that the inclusion of hops as a category of “non-organically produced agricultural products allowed as ingredients in products labeled organic” is a cynical and short-sighted mistake and would set the organic industry and standards back instead of advancing them.
In summary, as the oldest United States brewery to bottle a certified organic beer and the first to bottle a certified organic beer under its own label, Lakefront Brewery, Inc. does not support the proposal to add hops to the National List (Section 205.606) and believes that it would be harmful to the many industries supported and sustained by organic beer in the United States.
Please contact us with any questions or additional information.
Russell J. Klisch, President
Lakefront Brewery, Inc.
Milwaukee, WI

From Organic Consumers Association
Published August 13, 2007

Anheuser-Busch Pledges to Use Only Organic Hops In Organic Beer
Organic Alert: As reported previously, the USDA is proposing to add 38 (non-organic) ingredients to the National List of allowable ingredients in products labeled as “USDA Organic” (products that are at least 95% organic). The OCA has been petitioning the USDA to remove some of the more problematic proposed ingredients, such as factory farmed animal intestines, mercury-laden fish oils, and nonorganic hops.
The USDA was heavily lobbied by the beer giant Anheuser-Busch, who claimed that organic hops are not commercially available and has been advertising its “Wild Hops Lager” as “the perfect organic experience” using conventional hops grown with chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Thanks in part to a USDA petition signed by over 20,000 people, Anheuser-Busch has announced it will now start using 100% organic hops for its organic beer line.
Despite Anheuser-Busch responding to public pressure and negative publicity in the press, the USDA apparently still plans to officially rank organic hops as “commercially unavailable.” This will allow beer-makers to use chemically grown hops in their beers labeled as “organic”, instead of supporting family farmers who are currently growing organic hops.
Please take a moment to sign this new petition to Anheuser-Busch, thanking them for pledging to use organic hops and requesting they tell the USDA to remove conventional hops from the National List of approved organic ingredients, thereby requiring all organic beer makers to use organic hops.