The Big “O”—Defining Organic Beer

By Brittany Dern

Let’s talk about The Big “O”—organic beers and breweries. When discussing organic beer, perhaps the most important question to start with is, why brew organic beer at all? The easy answer is, why not? In many other product markets organic options flourish, so it seems natural—or maybe even organic—that the craft beer industry would eventually go down this path.

In this quickly growing beer market, 100 new craft breweries popped up in the U.S. between July 2009 and July 2010. According to Sustainable Business Oregon’s article, “Organic beer industry flourishes,” organic beer sales reached $41 million in 2009, more than double the sales of organic beer in 2005.

Levels of Organic Certification

But are all organic beers created equal? Organic certification has several different levels. The highest level of certification is “100 Percent Organic,” and is achieved when only organically produced ingredients and processing aids are used (i.e. no chemicals or pesticides). Next is “Organic,” which are those products that contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. The remaining ingredients must be proven not to be available in organic form in the quantity and quality needed for the product. The non-organic ingredients must be included in the USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. At present, hops usually comprise the non-organic component of certified organic beers, because some varieties can be hard to obtain in organic form.

The fact that 5 percent or less of the ingredients in a certified organic beer are not organic hasn’t deterred most consumers from the products. This is normally due to the consumer being unaware of the 95 percent threshold, they feel that 95 percent organic is sufficient, or because they have determined that their organic beers of choice are made with organic hops. However, some consumers, hops growers, and brewers feel differently. Some argue that consumers who choose organic beer are making a conscious decision about what they put into their bodies, and feel that any pesticides or chemicals are unacceptable. Some beer lovers also choose organic beer because organic farms help reduce pollution to soil and water.

Organic Hops—A Regulatory Catch-22

Members of the American Organic Hop Grower Association (AOHGA) have argued that the National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB) allowance of non-organic hops in organic beer has created an economic disincentive to grow organic hops. In turn, many brewers, some of whom are also AOHGA members, who produce beers with organic hops have argued that their costs are higher, and that there is a difference between their products and those produced without organic hops. The dynamic created by the NOSB, a regulatory catch-22, has slowed the growth of U.S. organic hop production by preventing the development of a feasible organic hops market in America.

In December 2009, the AOHGA petitioned the USDA to have hops removed from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. As a result, in October 2010, the NOSB Handling Committee recommended a two-year transition period towards removal of hops from the list. By 2013, all beers bearing the word “organic” on their labels must be brewed with organic hops. The two-year window is intended to give brewers and growers time to secure organic hop stocks, and should result in the availability of a much greater variety and supply of organic hops in the long term.

Organic Brewing Pioneers

The national trend toward organic products is nothing new to consumers. So when and where did these organic beers and breweries come into existence? Answering this question is tricky; several breweries were experimenting with organic beer in the mid-90s. Lakefront Brewing Company claims it had the first certified organic beer to be labeled in the U.S. in 1996. According to Wolaver’s Organic Ales Facebook page, they brewed “the nation’s first certified organic beer in 1997.  Eel River Brewing Company also claims to becoming the first certified organic brewery in 1999. Perhaps the point to take away from this is that breweries were catching onto the organic movement in the mid-90s. I’ll let them hash out the rest!

A Sampling of Organic Breweries and Beers

Organic Breweries

Asher Brewing Co., Boulder, CO
Bison Brewing Co., Berkeley, CA
Butte Creek Brewing Co., Ukiah, CA
Eel River Brewing Co., Fortuna, CA
Hopworks Urban Brewery, Portland, OR
Laurelwood Public House and Brewery, Portland, OR
Pisgah Brewing Co., Black Mountain, NC
Roots Organic Brewing Co., Portland, OR
Thirsty Bear Brewing Co., San Francisco, CA
Wolaver’s Organic Brewery, Middlebury, VT

Breweries with Organic Beers

Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR: Green Lakes Organic
Elliott Bay Brewing Co., Seattle, WA: ten organic beers to choose from
Fish Brewing Co., Olympia, WA: Organic Amber Ale, Organic IPA, Organic Pale Ale
Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI: Lakefront Organic ESB
New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins, CO: Mothership Wit
Oakshire Brewing Co., Eugene, OR: Mud Puddle, Subtext Organic PNW Red Ale
Redrock Brewing Company, Salt Lake City, UT: Organic Zwekielbier, Organic Pale Ale
Utah Brewers Cooperative, Salt Lake City, UT: Squatters Organic Amber Ale

Whether or not you drink organic beer, I think we can all agree that organic is a noble direction. With the many different beer styles out there, organic beers can either be your sole style (or ‘soul’ style!), or just another type of beer you drink. Regardless, let’s give a big round of “O”-plause for the efforts of organic breweries and beers! Do you have any favorite organic breweries or U.S. organic beers not listed above? Please share with us below!


Brittany Dern

Brittany’s craft beer life began about four years ago, when she started working at a brewpub in downtown Boulder, Colorado. Several years later she took an internship at the Brewers Association, in the Craft Beer Program, and started working at Asher Brewing Company in the tap room and as a marketing assistant. After the internship, she took a Sales & Marketing position at Drake’s Brewing Company in San Leandro, California. She is currently studying to become a Certified Beer Server, and has plans to pursue a Certified Cicerone Certification and Beer Judge Certification.

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