Tasting Notes: Strange Brew

Organic beer is one of today’s fastest growing—and selling—beverages. But will it replace the Heineken in your fridge?

With everything going “green,” beer hasn’t missed the boat. And I’m not talking about the green-hued pitcher of suds you’re likely to find at Finnegan’s on March 17th. I’m talking about certified organic premium beer—the stuff you are increasingly likely to find at your local supermarket. Green beer is growing, and as an avid beer drinker, the author of a popular beer book, and a stereotypical Irishman, I felt it was my duty to investigate this growing phenomenon for canvas.

My first stop was the closest supermarket: Southdown Market in Huntington. An upscale store featuring both organic fare and an excellent selection of upscale beer (including, just recently, some high-end Belgian Trappist ales), Southdown Market seemed like a good place to find an organic beer. After some searching in the cold aisle, I came across the only organic beer in stock: Peak Organic Pale Ale ($8.99). Sheathed in a rather pleasant six-pack carrier, the packaging promised “six 12-ounce bottles of delicious organic beer.” I grabbed it—and a backup six-pack of Budweiser, just in case.

My next stop was Whole Foods market in Jericho, that also boasts a high-end selection of suds—albeit, stocking only 2 additional certified organic beer choices besides Peak. I grabbed a six-pack of Wolaver’s organic Pale ale ($8.99), and the very rich-looking Old Ploughshare Stout ($8.99 for a four-pack).

At home, I immediately decanted a bottle of Peak Organic Pale ale into a tall, frosted beer glass and admired its frothy head. This looked, smelled and—yes—tasted like a very high-quality and delicious pale ale. I also sampled a bottle of the Wolaver’s Pale ale, and although the two ales were highly distinctive, both matched up well—and, in some cases, surpassed many commercially available pale ales I have tried. Both ales were flavorful, well carbonated, and characterized by the light malt character and “high-hop” taste of a classic IPA. I put the Old Ploughshare stout up against my tried and true Guiness stout, and found it to be a dark beer worth a second look—and a good organic-stout alternative.

On the whole, I could see why organic beer is beginning to break out of the “fad” category and experience a wider acceptance. If organic beer is anything like organic wine, then the future is bright for Peak Brewing, Otter Creek Brewing (Wolaver’s) and their organic-brew brethren. Current projections have organic wine’s share at a surprising 1 percent of the $23 billion U.S. wine market—with a growth rate that can approach an astonishing 50 percent a year.

Sales of organic beer are a lot smaller, but rapidly growing. In 2005—a year that overall beer sales actually declined—organic beer sales were up 40 percent, to $19 million. That may be a small number in the overall scale of the segment (by comparison, Anheuser-Busch sells about $8 billion worth of beer every year). Yet organic beer accounts for a tremendous amount of chemicals taken out of the agricultural process, which “can cause soil degradation and chemical runoff that contaminate water sources and the ecosystems they support,” according to Jon Cadoux, organic-beer pioneer and the founder and president of Peak Organic Brewing Company. An avid brewer and active environmentalist, Cadoux combined his love for both with a Harvard MBA and began brewing commercially in 1998. Located in Portland, Maine, the company brews three varieties of 100-percent organic beer and ships around the country. After drinking some of his beer, I tracked Jon down and asked him some obvious questions:

canvas: Tell canvas something about yourself.

Jon Cadoux: I’m pretty obsessed with brewing, so my life isn’t very sexy otherwise. Lately, we have been working on some really interesting new brews, so the obsession has worsened, at the expense of having a fun personal life. When I have time, I enjoy surfing, hiking, and skiing or snowboarding with family and friends.

canvas: Is organic beer better than “regular” beer? Or is all of this a lot of hype?

JC: I truly believe that the purest barley and hops are grown on
small family farms that don’t use toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. These farmers are leading the way in terms of quality and we are honored to use their output in our ales. The foundation of an excellent beer is pure ingredients, and we think our organic farmers are making the purest out there.

canvas: Does organic beer last as long?

JC: There is nothing about using organic ingredients that should materially affect shelf life. Organic beer has pretty much the same shelf life as non-organic beer.

canvas: What is the organic-beer movement like right now? Is this going to be a real trend, or is it just another way to cash in on the “green” phenomenon?

JC: Organic beer is doing great because some brewing companies are putting out superb organic products. If folks can drink a superior craft beer that happens to be organic, then it’s a win-win. As an environmentalist, for me the end game is to have all brewing companies making certified organic beer. To reverse the serious issues of agricultural runoff and soil degradation, it’s going to take a lot more than 1 percent of barley and hops to be grown organically. It will take time, but I hope to see a vast majority of beer brewed around the world be certified organic in my lifetime.

canvas: Are you some kind of hippie? What made you want to brew “organic” beer anyway?

JC: I’m more of a foodie. We started brewing with organic ingredients because we were noticing that a lot of organic products we were buying just tasted better than the non-organic products. When we saw the quality of the organic barley that we were able to source, we were hooked. The organic-certification process is extremely difficult and takes a lot of our time and efforts. I think it’s worth it, though, because consumers should have every confidence that a product with the “USDA Organic” seal is the real deal. We work very closely with our certification agency to make sure that our organic raw materials never come in contact with “non-organic” materials and that our washing and rinsing procedures are proper.

canvas: What non-organic beers do you enjoy?

JC: I’m all over the board. The beers that get me the most excited are the ones that really innovate within a style. The ability of a brewer to really showcase the raw ingredients they are using and to create a beer that is complex and flavorful is what I am after. At the end of the day, I think a brewer should look at a beer they just made and think “what did this just add to the craft brewing scene?” I think if we all continually ask ourselves that, craft beer will continue to thrive the way it is now.

Find Organic Beer on Long Island

Peak Organic Pale Ale, Wolaver’s, and Old Ploughshare can be found on Long Island at Whole Foods in Jericho. Peak can also be found at Southdown Market in Huntington, as well as popular chains including Waldbaum’s, King Kullen, Wild by Nature, and the Food Emporium. It’s also served at many restaurants and bars including JP McGeevers (on draught) in Garden City South, Half Penny Pub in Sayville, the Garden City Country Club (also on draught), and The Library in Farmingdale.

Christopher O’Hara’s most recent book, Great American Beer, won a “Man at His Best” award from Esquire Magazine.

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