Friday, August 17, 2007

Troubles down on the (organic) farm

My latest Condé Nast Portfolio column is up, a piece on the current controversy in organic brewing.

The problem: hops, which are a booger to grow organically; demand, which is booming, thanks to the overall surge in demand for organic products; and regulatory change, which may make it impossible for brewers to use anything less than all organic hops in beer labeled "organic."

In a nutshell: demand for organic beers is growing much faster than the ability of farmers to grow more organic hops, while a lawsuit brought against the USDA may force the agency to take hops off an exemption list that allows conventionally-grown hops in organic beers under certain circumstances.

The surprise: one of the brewers that have already gone to using all organic hops...is Anheuser-Busch. (Yes, there are craft brewers using all organic hops as well.)

Read all about it.

5 comments:

matt said...

I had the opportunity to give the Wild Hop Lager a try while in the good beer oasis that is Disney World earlier this summer. I was pleasantly surprised with the product given relatively low expectations going in.

It doesn't surprise me that AB is one of the brewerys at the fore in using entirely organic hops, as they certainly have the resources to acquire the necessary plants.

More power to them.

Travis said...

I'm not all that surprised that AB would go to all organic first. It would make sense from a marketing standpoint.

They may very well have put lobbyists behind the scenes pushing the USDA to rule that the beer has have organic hops to be called organic. That way the only brewers they have to compete with on organic beer are the other big boys that can afford to lay out the cash to contract for the hops a season or three before hand.

That is a common tactic for large companies to put the whammy on small companies trying to take over a niche. They make it too expensive for the the little guys to compete by establishing some sort of 'industry standard" and then lobbying government agencies or elected officials to make everyone do it. The little guys can't compete in that niche any more because they can't afford to.

The USDA is guilty of this little trick in lots of areas. Small time farmers are struggling in part because they don't have enough money to deal with all the regulatory issues thrown at them by the government that were lobbied for and encouraged by Cargill, ADM and the like.

Lew Bryson said...

Saw that happen with cider, Travis. Three people get sick in Oregon, and all of a sudden, every little orchard in the country's gotta pasteurize (or otherwise sterilize) their cider. Put a lot of them out of business, and you'll never see a pleasantly bulgy gallon jug at a farmstand again, just waiting to put a nice little afternoon buzz on you... And that was a state by state thing!

But it runs both ways. Before this blew up and A-B decided to go all organic, they were accused of trying to influence the USDA to keep hops on the list so they could continue to call non-100% organic beer "organic." The Organic Consumers Alliance was screaming bloody murder about it. Ever seen "Thank You For Smoking"? These guys can't win.

Still, it's like Wal-Mart and the fluorescent bulb: it's a GOOD thing when the big guys get in. They push the suppliers, and help create a critical mass for profitable production. There aren't many all-organic brewers: Butte Creek, Wolaver's, Lakefront, Orlio, A-B... they all have other beers they can make till things settle down a bit, and in the meantime, well, they can make low-hopped beers (which I actually enjoy, and there's evidence the general organic market enjoys, too).

There's always options. There are also going to be organic farmers who just won't sell to A-B because they're A-B. Things aren't over yet.

Jeff Alworth said...

I think the USDA's policy is good because it allows a transition period. The market is there for organic beers, and the brewers aren't trying to pull a fast one. It's an issue of technology and supply. Once hop growers figure out how to grow organically, they'll find willing buyers. In the meantime, brewers should have the hop dispensation.

Lew Bryson said...

I agree, Jeff. I think it should be tightly enforced, and definitely made strain-specific, but given the amount of time it takes to get hop vines to the point of producing -- a minimum of three years -- going to 100% organic on hops overnight is simply unrealistic, and as Jon Cadoux said, would kill a lot of the market for organic malt. Not a good idea.