We'll Drink to That: NOSB Requires Organic Beer to be Made with Organic Hops

Hops! Image copyright Evelyn Simak

There seems to be a dearth of good news these days, so I thought I'd lighten the mood with an update from the exciting world of USDA agricultural standards development.  Thanks to an outpouring of grassroots support and a prudent policy adjustment, organic beer will soon be more… organic.

As Erin McCarthy explained in a recent Ecocentric post, in 2007, the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) added hops to the National Organic Program’s National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances (non-wonk translation: they decided to allow organic beer to be brewed with non-organic hops).  Lame?  Yeah; big-time lame.

Not surprisingly, the ill-conceived “Budweiser exemption” (more on this later) was opposed by craft brewers, beer geeks, sustainable ag advocates and other sensible people who think that organic foods should actually be made with organic ingredients.  Sadly, these advocates of reason were again bitterly (guffaw, guffaw) disappointed when the NOSB denied the request to remove hops from the National List back in September.

But every so often, sound judgment prevails!  After reviewing feedback from brewers, farmers, scientists and concerned citizens during the public comment period, the NOSB reversed its previous decision and recommended that hops be removed from the National List, effective January 1, 2013.

Big Win

While this is certainly good news for the beer world, it’s also a huge victory for proponents of organic agriculture.  Ever since the conception of the National Organic Program, there’s been an ongoing battle over organic standards between those whose primary motive is to make money and those who want to promote truly sustainable forms of agriculture.  See, organics is big money; consumer demand is huge, market growth is tremendous and processors know they can charge a premium for anything with the organic label.  As a result, Agribiz has always wanted to get in on the action – but since its motive is profit, Big Ag wants to produce organics as cheaply as possible – so it constantly lobbies to weaken the standards (or sometimes just ignores them entirely).

In the case of beer, industrial swill-spewer Anheuser-Busch (manufacturers of Budweiser) lobbied hard to ensure that hops were added to the list of approved and prohibited substances, claiming that organic hops weren’t readily available on a commercial scale.  Conveniently of course, it was also a lot cheaper for Anheuser-Busch to brew its line of fake craft organic beers with conventional hops.

Unfortunately, the NOSB’s Budweiser exception didn’t help the rest of us; in addition to watering down (groan) the organic standards, it actually discouraged growth of the nascent organic hops industry – because if you can make organic beer with cheap conventional hops, there’s not much incentive to use the more expensive organic variety (though some idealistic breweries did so anyway).

We were happy therefore, that the good guys ultimately prevailed.  Hats off to the American Organic Hop Grower Association, the Organic Consumers Association, the craft brewing community and concerned consumers.  Three cheers to sensible standards.