Organic Homebrewing

usda_organicA lot of homebrewers brew their own beer because they enjoy making things themselves from scratch and the local freshness of it.  But one thing I know a lot of brewers would like to do is to brew organic beer, but it can often be quite a hurdle to understand exactly what this means.  Luckily, I was able to get in touch with a Charlotte area homebrewer, Matt Coffey, who has offered to give us the run-down!

Matt has been homebrewing since 2007 and has won several ribbons in local NC homebrewing competitions. He is one of the founding members of the Cabarrus Homebrewers Society based in Concord, NC. Matt also writes a blog dedicated to brewing and fermentation entitled Traditional Brewing: Reinvented.

There seems to be a new trend going on in brewing these days and, in all actuality, it is really nothing new. I’m talking about the organic brewing movement.  Everyone seems to be into the consuming of “all natural.” Some breweries seek only the purist quality ingredients and have moved into completely organic based. Peak Organic is the first brewery that comes to mind, vowing to use all organic ingredients to make their beer. They go as far as to seek out local farmers and collaborate with them to get the best ingredients.

For a brewery to be called organic by law, they have to be USDA Organic certified, meaning that they must use ingredients grown by farms that are free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This is not an easy thing to carry out, especially when organic malts and, more importantly, organic hops are not typically grown in this way.

What is organic?

The term organic has been thrown around a lot, especially in the last few years. But what exactly does this mean? To be considered organic, a certification must be acquired from the USDA, stating that the products you produce are grown without the use of non-organic chemicals. In the case of beer brewing, the ingredients used are only organic and natural materials. (No pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, food additives, etc…).

The concept behind this is that many commercial pesticides are known to be toxic, and the prolonged use of these chemicals can carry over to the finished product whereby the consumer is ingesting the residual toxins. It also concerns the local water supply. The concern is that the chemicals leech into the local water, and the toxins can spread into the community drinking water. The concerns over toxicity are ultimately eliminated when naturally composted materials or manure are used in place of chemical fertilizer. The same is true when a natural pesticide is used in place of the chemical pesticides.

This is what is known as sustainable farming practices, also called sustainable agriculture, which basically means the use of renewable resources as an alternative to the usual farming practices.  This minimizes the use of non-renewable resources. But when it comes to USDA Organic certification, there is a loophole in the system.

Loophole In organic certification?

Technically a brewery may be considered certified organic even if the ingredients are not 100% organic. In fact, only 95% of the ingredients must be organically grown to be considered for the certification, leaving 5% of the ingredients in the brew to not be organic, if they cannot be sourced for whatever the reason.

From what I have read, it is usually the hops that are the most difficult to source. However, as the demand for organic ingredients (malt and hops) go up, more farmers and distributors see that there is a market for it; and more of these materials will become readily available.

This loophole does not mean that all (or any) brewer makes a 95% organic beer. It is just a consumer standard that says almost all of the ingredients used to make this product are organically grown. This is meant as the assurance of purity in the product being sold. However, this doesn’t mean that organic beers are any “safer” or less toxic than any other beer on the shelf; or even in your own fermenter…

“Buy Organic!” …is this a marketing ploy?

It depends who you ask! Some consumers swear by organic foods, saying that it has less impact on the environment by introducing fewer toxins and promotes sustainable farming practices while remaining a “pure” food. Others claim that there is no danger or toxic poisoning in our foods from commercial pesticides and fertilizers, and cannot justify the high prices that an “organically grown” sticker demands.

There are also some concerns of manipulations in organic regulations from these same consumers. Some say that the buyer should be aware of exactly what they are buying and not just assume that the product being purchased is in fact 100% organically grown. Because of the competitive consumer foods market, some companies have actually lobbied for a loosening of the “organic” certification; and now allow some choice synthetic materials (such as food coloring) to be overlooked when applying for the certification!

The pros and the cons have excellent points. Each of them carries concerns which are considered valid. Who would want to introduce toxins in their homebrew? The whole reason I decided to get into homebrewing was to make a better tasting beer than was available in my area, and to have complete control over the ingredients used in the brewing process. Certified Organic malts and hops are a way of standardizing and assuring the brewer of the quality ingredients (at a premium price of course).

The most important thing is always using high-quality ingredients. Without quality ingredients, the beer’s flavor will suffer, bottom line. But, by the same token, just because you are using organic ingredients does not guarantee that your beer will turn out any better,  nor does it mean that its less toxic than using non-organic ingredients.

In retrospect…

All brewers should use quality ingredients, organic or non-organic. Organically certified is just a way to assure you of a certain quality. Chances are, if they are a smaller company and are USDA certified, it’s more than likely going to be a quality product. But, be aware of the products you are buying! The only way to 100% guarantee purity is to grow your own ingredients. Then you will absolutely know what’s in your garden plants. I use composted table scraps and yard waste for my garden and my hops love it too! There is no comparison to using organic material in the garden.

Organic suppliers and farms are on the incline, so sourcing quality ingredients should only get easier as time goes on. However I can’t stress enough that we all must support the local farms, whether it be for brewing purposes or even for your everyday produce. That’s why farmers markets are so popular with the world’s best chefs.  It is fresh local ingredients that taste best. You may not taste any difference between organically grown and non-organically grown ingredients, but fresh is ALWAYS best.

The use of organic brewing ingredients is a matter of personal choice, and some people say they can taste the difference! But no matter why you choose to use organic ingredients, your goal should always be to make the best brews that you can.

For a good source of organic homebrew ingredients check out http://www.breworganic.com/index.htm. They specialize in all organic brewing at reasonable prices. Also check out Riverbend Malt for a local NC maltster that practices sustainable farming. (What’s better than a local maltster when you’re a brewer?)