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