Organic Beer: Tapping a New Market


Organic Beer: Tapping a New Market
The question Dubliners face each afternoon is not what will quench their thirst this evening but which pub will serve up their next pint of Guinness. Beer has been a staple food (yes, food), for Europeans for thousands of years. Want a taste of antiquity? On your next visit to Whole Foods, look for a cold Weihenstephaner, considered the world’s oldest brew dating back to 1040. With more and more doctors extolling the health benefits of red wine, you may wonder: Does beer have any health benefits? If so, are some beers healthier than others? Read on to learn what natural food stores have to offer in the beer cooler.

Wine was first to receive an official health endorsement when researchers began citing the antioxidants it contains as one explanation for the low heart disease rate of the French. Since then it has been discovered that one drink per day of any type of alcohol lowers heart disease risk by nearly 25%[i]. Beer, then, offers the same heart benefits, contains more B vitamins, and is a source of unique flavonoids (beneficial phytochemicals) found in barley malt and hops. Studies also indicate that where antioxidants are concerned, the darker beers pack a stronger punch.

Now that it’s clear that alcohol reduces cardiovascular disease risk, doctors face the predicament of how best to recommend drinking without encouraging a habit with a dangerous downside. The official prescription for current drinkers has a familiar ring to it: moderation (defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.)

In the early 1980s, with just a dozen or so national brands of beer to choose from, microbrewers were established in the U.S. so as to offer the full-flavored beers available in Europe. It wasn’t until the mid 90s, however, that these craft brewers started gaining real momentum.  According to the Institute for Brewing Studies, there are now nearly 1500 microbreweries and brewpubs that produce 3% of all the beer consumed in America. By the late 90s, certified organic beers started appearing on the shelves nationally. C’mon, you say, organic beer? Well, if you think about it, beer has the same basic ingredients as bread.  But before we get into the organic discussion, what can be said about Budweiser and other mass-produced beers?

Mass-Produced Beers
To their credit, the world’s largest brewers (henceforth called Big Beer) are able to produce a consistent beer and deliver it to a global market. Most American brands, however, are designed for mass appeal and mass consumption; they are characterized by moderate alcohol content and a mild, almost watery, taste. For the record, Big Beer typically runs a little lower in alcohol (from 3.2% by weight to 5.5%) while craft brews are typically 4% to 8% but can be as high as 20%. My home state of North Carolina is one of six that current limits beer to 6% alcohol (legislation to lift the cap to 15% recently passed the house but, as of July, 2005, has stalled in the senate).

It’s difficult to get specific information indicting Big Beer on the issue of quality as recipes and ingredients are not readily disclosed. One thing that is clear, though, is that Big Beer relies more on less expensive “adjuncts” like corn or rice, both of which provide sugar but result in a paler, lighter-flavored beer. This should come as no surprise: All mass-produced foods that have attained empire status, be it makers of breakfast cereal or beer, are guilty of using less expensive ingredients (read: “Lower quality”). Yes, even the King of Beers.

Craft-brewed Beers

“Craft beer should mean natural beer brewed in a non-automated brewery of less than 50-barrel brew length, using traditional methods and premium, whole, natural ingredients, and no flavor-lessening adjuncts or extracts, additives or preservatives.” – brewmaster Greg Noonan

Advantages: Craft-brewers typically use higher quality ingredients and, because of small production, can offer great variety – just take a look at the beer section of an upscale market.

Buying craft-brews can mean buying local, a decision that helps keep profits in the community instead of the pockets of billion-dollar companies and that reduces the need for long-distance transportation. Many microbreweries sell refillable containers called “growlers” –glass jugs that typically hold a half-gallon of beer – that customers can buy and refill, thereby reducing unnecessary packaging.

Disadvantage: Unfortunately small batches do not offer the cost advantages of mass-production, which of course makes really good beer cost sometimes double the price per six-pack.

Organic Beers
The USDA established the National Organic Program in 1997, opening the door for organic beer. The guidelines for organic beer are the same as for all organic foods: The ingredients must be grown without synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizer and in soil that has been free from such chemicals for at least 3 years. No genetically modified (GMO) ingredients can be used in the brewing process. Studies show that organic farming reduces erosion and ground-water pollution and that it significantly lessens the impact on wildlife.

Cornell University estimate that at least 67 million birds die each year from pesticides sprayed on US fields.[ii]

While uniformity is not a strong point of organics - or craft-beers, for that matter - brewers say that organic hops, which are difficult to come by, typically offer a better and stronger aroma.  Do organic ingredients create a better beer? Some brewers believe the answer is yes, claiming that organic malts and hops have no chemical residues to interfere with the fermentation process. David Quinn of the Pisgah Brewing Co., North Carolina’s only certified organic brewery, says, “Based on my conversations with the quality control guys, the use of less pesticides actually leads to a grain with overall better brewing characteristics – this results in better extraction of sugars and clearer beer.”

Unfiltered & Unpasteurized
Big Beer pasteurizes beers after bottling to prevent microbes from causing “off” flavors. These microbes, however, do not cause illness. Craft brewers do not typically pasteurize, and while there is little evidence to support any claims, I expect that research will ultimately reveal that unpasteurized “live” beers are nutritionally superior to pasteurized beers. The major difference between Big Beer and craft brewers, according to Quinn, extends beyond pasteurization to filtration. He says, “The big guys filter their beer to remove yeast and protein that causes the beer to cloud at lower temps, called chill haze.” But filtering the yeast removes most of the B vitamins – think brewer’s yeast – and other nutrients like chromium, evidence that unfiltered beers are more nutritious.

Some brewers are reverting back to “bottle-conditioning”, a centuries-old tradition of preserving beer. Bottle-conditioned beers undergo a second brief fermentation – in the bottle – which carbonates the beer naturally. In addition, the added yeast fights off the microbes that cause “off” flavors and enables the beer to improve with age, like a bottle of wine.

Now the exciting part! The following beers, most of which are available at the natural foods market, are unfiltered and unpasteurized. I’ve compiled an incomplete list – ask your local natural food store for available options.

Organic Beers (Unpasteurized & Unfiltered)
Wolaver’s – all beers
Lamar Street – Whole Foods label (brewed by Goose Island)
Bison – all beers
Dogfish Head (organic when ingredients available)
Fish Brewery Company – Fish Tale Ales
Lakefront Brewery – Organic ESB
Brooklyn - (organic when ingredients are available)
Pinkus – all beers
Samuel Smiths - Samuel Smiths Organic Ale
Wychwood – Scarecrow Ale

Non-Organic Beers (Unpasteurized & Unfiltered)
Sierra Nevada – all choices
Duck Rabbit - Brown Ale, Porter, Amber Ale, Milk Stout 
Dogfish Head- 60 Minute IPA, Shelter Pale Ale, Chicory Stout 
Shipyard - Summer Brew
Victory Brewery – Whirlwind
North Coast – Blue Star
Bridgeport - IPA (Bottle conditioned)
Ayinger – all choices
Royal Oak - Pale Ale 
Fraziskaner – Hefeweisse and Dunkel Weisse 
Weihenstephaner – Hefe Weissbier
Maisel’s – Weisse
Hoegaarden - Belgian Wit

Taste Test Results
We compiled a small group to conduct an unscientific taste test of various pale ales from our local natural food store. As always, there was a lot of disagreement as to which beer tastes the best.

Beers

Rank

Avg

Bridgeport – IPA (bottle-conditioned)

2

3

2

2

3

1

2.2

Ridgeway – IPA (bottle-conditioned)

1

4

5

1

2

3

2.7

Dogfish Head - Shelter Pale Ale

4

2

3

3

1

5

3.0

Wolaver’s IPA (organic)

3

1

1

5

4

4

3.0

Lamar Street – Pale Ale (organic)

5

5

6

6

5

2

4.8

Rogue – Brutal Bitter

6

6

4

4

6

6

5.3

Hippie Wisdom
As with all alcohol, there are health benefits associated with moderate beer consumption. Keep in mind, too, that darker beers contain more antioxidants than lighter beers.  

There are a wide variety of quality beers to choose from. Try different beers and look for those produced locally and those produced organically. Buying local provides many benefits to the community, reduces transportation, lowers waste, and is miles fresher. Buying organic beer sends a powerful message that reinforces organic farming practices and increases the amount of land that is farmed in a chemical free, sustainable manner.

Want to brew your own? Check out: http://www.breworganic.com/
Pisgah Brewing Company: http://www.pisgahbrewing.com/

- Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD


[i] Rimm EB, et al. Moderate alcohol intake and lower risk of coronary heart disease: meta-analysis of effects on lipids and haemostatic factors. BMJ 1999 Dec 11;319(7224):1523-8
[ii] Pimentel, D., et al. Environmental and economic costs of pesticide use. Bioscience  1992; 42:750-761.

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