Organic Brewing: Tips from the Pros

What’s better than a great homebrew? A homebrew that is good for the environment and sustainable farmers! This issue two brewers discuss the reasons for going organic at home, how ingredients can shape your brews and what to avoid in the brewhouse.

Brewer: Amelia Slayton, Seven Bridges Cooperative Organic Brewing Supplies in Santa Cruz, CA

Whenever I hear the question why brew organic, my first response is why not? When it is possible to brew beer that tastes just as good if not better than non-organic beer, and when knowing that the choice to brew organic means less chemicals sprayed on farms, endangering health and clean water supplies, and less chemicals in the beer, why not? When the reward at the end of the organic brewing adventure is great tasting, healthy beer that I can feel great about, why not?

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that could not be more true than when it comes to brewing organically. Because there are so many ingredients that are not available as organic, it forces brewers to get creative with their recipes and this often results in unique beers. Almost every day I have to make choices about ingredients to try and achieve the same result with a more limited range of ingredients. For instance, many recipes call for Victory malt, which is currently not available organic. The best substitute I have found is a half and half mixture of Briess organic Munich malt and Weyermann Caramunich® malt. This blend gives the sweet nutty flavors plus the toasted biscuit flavors . . . not exactly the same as biscuit malt but a pretty tasty substitute that also hits the target color range.

Choices about hops are also a daily occurrence. When making a substitute for a hop, lets say Chinook, first I try to learn as much about that hop as I can. For example, Chinook was developed from the Goldings variety and is employed as both a bittering hop and as a flavor hop. If I want to match the bitterness of Chinook I would choose another high alpha acid hop such as Pacific Gem or Admiral. If the herbal-spicy, slightly piney aroma characteristic is desired, I would pick a German Perle or Goldings hop. In some cases, using two different hops to achieve the desired effect is the best solution.

There are some things I would not consider doing as an organic brewer. Using unfiltered municipal water that has been treated with chlorine or chloramine is one, although I know quite a few brewers who rely on evaporation to remove chlorine. A simple charcoal filter such as a PUR® faucet filter is an affordable way to filter water at home. I never buy bottled water unless I need distilled water to cut the mineral content for brewing a lager. Most bottled water is simply filtered water, and packaging and transporting it has a huge impact on the environment, and all the plastic bottles taking up landfill space or ending up in lakes or oceans is another huge problem. I also never use chlorine bleach as a sanitizer because chlorine, even in the mild household form, is quite volatile and can bind with organic molecules (such as those found in brewing grains or hops) to form dioxin, one of the deadliest toxins known and considered to be 300,000 times more carcinogenic than DDT. While multiple studies have shown chlorine to be safe to use as a household bleach or cleaner, I would rather not take my chances when I have so many other choices, such as Iodophor, peroxide, or acid-based sanitizers.

Brewing organic is a little more expensive than non-organic, although recent shortages of malt and hops have actually had the effect of equalizing prices somewhat. Basically, it’s an issue of supply and demand. The supply of organic ingredients has not been sufficient thus far to meet the demand by brewers, both commercial and homebrewers, thus the prices have been higher. When we first started out in 1997 the ingredients available cost as much as three times their non-organic counterparts, but today the average price difference is more like 20%. Growing organic crops is not always more expensive than crops that depend on sprays as pesticides and other agricultural chemicals are quite expensive. Usually the money saved by an organic farmer is offset by higher labor costs because more work has to be done by hand. Also, most organic farms are smaller and do not have the same cost savings due to mass production.

Think of organic brewing as a new and exciting adventure and to remember that it is just as fun as any other kind of brewing. The challenges are not overly hard and the rewards are just as sweet. The journey to organic homebrew nirvana begins with the right knowledge and tools, and ends when that cold glass of organic beer is in your hand with knowledge that it arrived there with less of an impact on our planet Earth.

Brewer: Steve Parkes, Drop In Brewing in Middlebury, VT

The reason for brewing organic is to support organic farming. Modern farming agribusiness is dangerous and detrimental while traditional methods have been time tested over the years.

Organic brewing is certainly more expensive, doesn’t have as widespread an appeal as conventional brewing and is harder to sell than some more mainstream products, but it does provide that tie to farming as an agricultural process.

Using organic ingredients can be a challenge, but not when finding malt — the maltsters take care of that for you. Organic malts are very good for brewing and you can see them ferment well. There are less producers of organic malts, but the products that come out of those malt houses are very similar to the conventional counterparts. Organic specialty malts are also coming from companies like Briess and Weyermann and the quality and range is there. There is also a huge availability of organic spices, for example Wolaver’s uses an organic orange peel.

Organic hops are a different story, however. New organic hop fields are probably the most exciting thing for me. Over the past ten years we supported at least two different hops growers in Oregon, both of whose crops failed once they became certified. We are now supporting a third grower who just became certified.

Availability of hops does affect the styles you brew, such as if you want to brew a classic beer style, so you have to brew based on the availability of the hops. But American homebrewers are not known for following the rules so you can certainly make all kinds of interesting things with the hops that are available. From Germany you can get pretty good quality Kent Golding, Hallertauer Tradition, Perle, Saphir and Spalt, from England there is organic First Gold and New Zealand produces Hallertauer and Pacific Gem, which are all available to homebrewers so you can make some interesting beers with those. This year we’re getting organic Fuggle, Magnum, Golding and some Cascade. You can also grow hops in your garden, presumably without chemicals.

At home, keep in mind the obvious stuff about cleaning and chemicals. Use water and elbow grease instead of chemicals and don’t use chemical additives. If you follow those rules and source good ingredients, you can be pleased about the impact your five gallons (19 L) of beer is having on the environment.

Issue: October 2008