Why Don’t More Brewers Make Organic Beer—and Will That Change?

by Lisa Elaine Held

4/15/20

Rob Tod created Allagash Brewing Company — now a leading independent craft beer brand known especially for its Belgian-style Allagash White — in Portland, Maine in 1995. The brewery was ahead of its time in many ways; it long prioritized buying from local farmers, used organic ingredients, and supported the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).

But it took nearly 25 years for Allagash to sell its first USDA-certified organic beer: Crosspath Organic Golden Ale debuted just a few months ago, in early 2020.

“Supporting local agriculture — organic and non-organic — has been very important to us for a long time. We felt like maybe this is the time that the consumer might start to care about organic beer a little bit more. It certainly felt aligned with who we are,” said Jason Perkins, brewmaster since 1999. “But there hasn’t been a big call for it. There have been breweries around for years making organic beer, but not many, and really, they are a super small part of the market.”

In the United States, organic food sales have steadily increased over the past decade, reaching $47.9 billion in 2018, a 5.9 percent increase from 2017, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). That interest in organic food has extended to adult beverages, with organic and biodynamic bottles now common at wine shops. But organic beer is hard to find. Nationwide, Peak Organic Brewing’s cans are often the only option in a given store’s selection. And many brands that were committed to the approach, like Wolaver’s, have come and gone.

Still, according to OTA data, organic beer sales went up 3.4 percent between 2017 and 2018 (compared to a 9 percent growth rate in organic wine). Part of that growth is likely due to the world’s largest brewer, AB InBev, getting into organic beer with the launch of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold

With Big Beer betting on organic, it stands to reason that more no-pesticide pale ales will follow suit. However, the future is now even more uncertain in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. A recent survey found that many craft breweries are reporting drops in revenue above 70 percent, with nearly half indicating they would not be able to remain in business if social distancing restrictions remain in place for more than a few months. Allagash, for one, dedicates a large portion of its business to restaurants, bars, and sales at its own breweries, and Perkins said they were facing many challenges ahead.

Growing Organic Beer Ingredients 

Beer typically contains water, hops, and grains. Those grains can include oats, rye, rice, and many others, but the most widely used is barley, which brewers buy after it has been malted.

If you want to brew organic beer, water is the simple ingredient. When you start to think about sourcing hops, things get complicated quickly.

Organic Hops

In beer, the flowers of the hop plant boost flavor and aroma, adding bitterness, floral notes, or a hint of grapefruit, for instance. But hops are a unique crop in that they’re not grown for consumption, or, really, for any other use.

In 2016 (the most recent year that organic data is available for comparison), farmers harvested 50,857 acres of hops in the US, with 75 percent of the nation’s crop produced in Washington, followed by Oregon and Idaho. Of those, an estimated 674 acres (on just 37 farms) were organic. Many people like to throw around the statistic that only one percent of American farmland is organic; for hops, that number is .01 percent. 

A spokesperson for the OTA said that “the supply of organic hops continues to be noted by organic beer makers as a challenge.” Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewers Association, which represents small, independent breweries, explained that hops are susceptible to specific disease pressures like downy mildew, which are most easily dealt with using chemical treatments. “They have traditionally been a fairly pesticide heavy crop,” he said. 

At Allagash, Perkins got the hops for Crosspath from Aroostook Hops, an organic family farm in Northern Maine, but the kinds of beers that can be brewed with the farm’s specific varieties is limited. To brew beers with certain profiles, he said it might be difficult to find organic hops, especially locally.

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Organic Barley

Grains are also hard to come by. Crosspath’s recipe includes oats, buckwheat, and a base malt made from barley. The malted barley was a specific challenge because a lot of the organic barley in the US is grown for animal feed, which means it’s not the ideal quality for malting. Perkins worked with Blue Ox Malthouse to find local, organic barley that was high enough quality to malt, and then “they had to figure out how to malt this stuff effectively.”

And like hops, very little of the barley grown in the US is organic. In 2016, 51,254 of 2,565,000 harvested acres were organic. That’s .02 percent. 

Most of that barley is grown in Montana, North Dakota, and Idaho, where Jessica Newman, the Director of Agricultural Procurement & Sustainability for Anheuser-Busch (which is owned by AB InBev), is based. Newman leads an agronomy team that works with farmers and others across the supply chain for more than 300 beers, including about 800 barley farmers. And since the launch of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold in 2018, she’s been concerned with the US supply of organic barley.

At first, Newman said, the company was able to go through their malt houses to find farmers that were already growing using organic methods.  “What’s been exciting about the growth of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold and the entry of other competitors into the space is that all of a sudden, there is a lot of demand for organic ingredients,” she said. “So then my team has really shifted to ‘How do we grow the organic acreage in the US?” 

Newman said they identified three main barriers barley farmers faced in switching to organic production: uncertain markets, the financial stress of the three-year transition, and a lack of technical and peer support. To address those challenges, the company is offering farmers four- to six-year contracts and paying premiums for “transitional” barley. (Organic certification requires that conventional farmland be farmed organically for three years before it can be certified, and during that time period farmers face increased costs, often without the higher income the organic market provides.) The agronomy team is also being trained to offer technical support.

Of course, Anheuser-Busch also turned the program into a marketing campaign to engage beer drinkers in the mission. During the 2020 Super Bowl, the company ran a commercial that declared for every six-pack of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold purchased, it would convert six square feet of farmland to organic. However, the Contract for Change program is currently capped at $1 million dollars, which means if it hits that maximum, 300 million square feet of land — or 6,887 acres, a small number — would be converted. (It’s worth noting that it’s estimated that the company spent $10 million on the ad alone, money that could have helped farmers convert a lot more farmland.)

Newman conceded that the $1 million committed would “not cover the kind of the growth that needs to occur in the markets,” but insisted that “we’re going to keep pushing.” She also said enthusiasm for the program has been strong so far. “We did our first set of in-person, on-the-ground organic barley 101 trainings open to the public and our own farmers a couple of weeks ago, and the response was tremendous,” she said. “We were expecting 30 or maybe 40 people, but at both of our Idaho locations, we got 100.”

The Cost of Organic Brewing

Of course, for a company like AB InBev that can drop $10 million on a 60-second commercial (plus however much it cost to produce), paying more for ingredients is not a big deal.

Newman said they typically pay a 175 to 200 percent premium for organic compared to conventional barley, but with incredible resources, massive scale, and an almost completely vertically integrated supply chain, that’s no big deal.

For small craft brewers, those numbers matter. Perkins estimated that Allagash paid two to three times as much for Crosspath’s ingredients compared to if they had bought conventional hops and malt. “Part of that is the local component, because we’re also buying from small producers,” he explained.

In addition to buying certified organic ingredients, the brewery also has to get its production certified. At Allagash, that process took four to five months and involved multiple employees dealing with lots of paperwork. In other words, it required significant resources, although moving forward, keeping the certification will only require an annual inspection. “Now that we’re a certified facility, if we decide to do another one, it’s much less extensive,” Perkins said.

But in light of the losses small breweries are facing due to COVID-19, it’s unlikely they’ll be willing or able to take on extra costs when they’re simply struggling to survive.

Will People Buy Organic Beer?

With organic foods, processors and manufacturers have managed these added costs by charging more at the grocery store, where eaters who choose organic tend to expect to pay a premium. With beer, that expectation isn’t yet a given.

“I think the biggest challenge for a lot of organic producers right now is getting the price point, right,” Watson said. One of the only studies that have looked at whether consumers will pay more for organic beer found they wouldn’t, although the study was small and done in Belgium.

When it comes to demand characteristics for craft beer, he said, “Taste or flavor is always at the top. Second is some form of variety or there’s a particular style they like. And then the third is typically the value component, whether that’s support for small, independent businesses, local, or organic. For craft beer, local has been such a big part of it already, that I think that’s scratching the itch for some people.”

3.4%

Increase in organic beer sales between 2017 and 2018, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

Since drinkers haven’t so far demanded organic in a big way, many brewers have chosen to focus on other practices they see as having an environmental impact.

At Suspended Brewing, a small, community brewery in Baltimore that bills itself as “ecologically conscious,” co-owner Josey Schwartz said he originally bought organic ingredients. But with very limited resources and trouble with quality, the value of continuing to buy organic wasn’t clear to him. Instead, he focused on sustainability initiatives at the brewery like energy and water-saving systems, an ozone machine that helps with surface sanitation to cut down on chemical use, and waste diversion via composting. “I just try to go for the really big or easy wins, the things that I know make a difference,” he said.

New Belgium, a popular Colorado craft brewery with a strong focus on sustainability, expresses similar sentiments on its website, where the team explains they stopped making a certified organic beer because “sales were a little blah.” When it comes to organic hops, they say, they’re concerned about low yields leading to more land use and greenhouse gas emissions and are hoping for more research to boost yields. When it comes to barley, they said they’re excited about various ways growers are decreasing the environmental footprint, by reducing synthetic fertilizers, for example, and using integrated pest management (a system that can reduce the amount of chemical pesticides used).

Still, Watson says he does see certified organic beer gaining more momentum in the future. AB InBev, for its part, has already identified one particularly interesting trend.  “10 percent of folks who buy Michelob Ultra Pure Gold are new to the category. So, they weren’t drinking beer before,” Newman said. “That’s not something you see very often.” And given the impacts of COVID-19, it may be easier than usual to convince the stressed-out masses to pop one open.

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