Monday, February 11, 2008

Sustainable Beer Drinking

First, a note about The Grumpy Troll's Ice Maggie that I talked about last week. MBR was out at The Grumpy Troll on Saturday and we sampled the Iced Maggie and it was fantastic. The flavors were as if the beer had instantly aged; soft and hoppy without being bitter; it really hit its stride once it warmed up, though it was actually quite good at the lower, chilled temperature at which it was served.

Released in October, New Glarus introduced a pale ale called the Organic Revolution. It uses organic Hellertau hops from Germany (Hallertau is a subdued and mildly spicy all-purpose hop, used both for bittering and aroma). It also uses "Wisconsin organically malted barley" - a mildly confusing statement since it is not immediately clear exactly what "Wisconsin" refers to - the malting or the barley; we will assume it means the malting, since presumably if the barley were from Wisconsin there would have been an "Island Wheat"-sized media blitz about the ingredients being local and the phrasing would be more along the lines of "malted Wisconsin organic barley." Finally "even" the carbonation is organic, referring to the practice of using active yeast to carbonate beer - called "bottle conditioning."

However, the organic label and beer are not without controversy. The organic brewing industry is bedeviled by two antithetical views: the public and small farmers who put time and effort into growing and crafting products without tainting the final product with modern pesticides or genes against the corporate giants who want to keep standards low to allow their short-cut products to be labeled "organic."
Until recently, certified “USDA Organic” products were allowed to include up to 5% non-organic ingredients. [Hops, on the other hand provide only bittering and aroma qualities and constitute a very small percentage, by weight, of the final product.] In practical terms this has meant that many brewers have used all or mostly all non-organic hops in their certified organic beers. [cite] However, a USDA rule-change went into effect in May 2007 requiring that all ingredients in USDA Organic products must be organic – with a few exceptions.
Of course, there are always some exceptions and there we pushes by a number of brewers to allow non-organic hops to be used in certified organic beer. This push failed, and as of October 21, 2007 all certified organic beers must use organic hops. But, hold the presses, at the last minute hops were added to the exemption list and a seven day comment period was allowed. During that comment period, Russ Klisch, brewer at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, had this scathing comment to make (on the record):
Adding hops to the National List (Section 205.606) would irreparably damage the reputation and credibility and integrity of the organic brewing industry . . . Organic hop varieties are currently available to brewers . . . beer is not beer without hops and organic beer is not organic beer without organic hops . .. 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.
Unfortunately, Mr. Klisch's pleas went unheeded, and the last-minute exemption is now "final" (on an "interim" basis); in other words, certified organic beers can use non-organic hops.

We agree with The Beer Activist that this seems a little strained. Reversing this decision to remove hops from the exemption list will be very difficult. Now that the cat has been let out of the bag, so to speak, the "organic" certification has been "diluted" to include non-organic hops. So, we end up with the strange situation presented by the Organic Revolution (and Lakefront's Organic ESB) - a certified organic beer that is "more organic" than it needs to be. And, if the certification is changed now, there will be "certified" organic beers that are no longer "organic" without having changed anything. FUBAR.

New Glarus Organic RevolutionThe Organic Revolution fermented by New Glarus Brewing Company need not worry about having its bona fides revoked; its barley and hops are both organic.
Appearance: Golden and surprisingly clear for a bottle-conditioned beer, a thick, white one-finger head form on top, while the few yeast particles aid the formation of bubbles
Aroma: lemon and grassy yeast aromas, with a slight peppery nose,
Flavor: a mix of flavors fight each other out for your attention; in one corner you have the grassy, earthy, and mild hops, in the other corner you have the fruity, lemony and bright yeast, in the other corner you have the focused malts, all of which swirl together, but never quite meld - instead keeping separate and playing off of each other.
Body: light bodied with carbonation; like typical bottle-conditioned beers, the carbonation wears off quickly, turning this from a pale ale into almost a sweet belgian ale
Drinkability: light and pleasant with no real reason not to drink it
Summary: if you like pale ales drink it quickly, if you like belgians let it sit for a bit, it's two beers in one! Inexplicably, Beer Advocate and Rate Beer both treat this one kind of badly - traditionally New Glarus fares pretty well there, even for beers which aren't so fantastic, but in this case, the BA and RB folks have chosen to rake a pretty decent (if non-descript) beer over the coals. Certainly no worse than Spotted Cow, if anything this beer's only downside is that it fails to differentiate itself. But still, a good beer and if you are in the market for making the world a better place, you can buy a six pack and rest assured that German organic hop farmers are being handsomely rewarded.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure that a "100% organic" certification exists. I don't know what the fine print says about exempt ingredients or cleaning chemicals, though. I wonder if it classifies CO2 as an ingredient (at about 0.5% of a beer's total weight, it doesn't much matter for the standard 95% certification)? When served on draft, even naturally-carbonated beers are usually displaced with an industrial CO2 source.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.