Organic Hop Market Expands, Thanks to Uncle Sam

The hop harvest at Loftus Ranch
By Daniel Del Grande

Government doesn’t usually get credit when it does things right, so I’d like to share a looming success story you should keep your eye on.  The government has actually created a marketplace for organic hops where one did not exist before, and they did it without screwing over anybody.

Their actions benefited consumers, farmers, the environment, and brewers like myself.  Until the USDA stepped in, only a few varieties of organic hops from Europe and New Zealand were available in the US to brew organic beers.  Now that the domestic (and international) organic hop market has developed, beginning January 1, 2013, the USDA phases out their exemption so that brewers who use the USDA Organic Logo must use 100 percent organic hops.  Today, if certain hops are not available commercially, a brewer either needs to use whatever is available, or use the exemption to use non-organic hops in an organic-labeled-beer.

People deserve organic ingredients in organically certified beer. It is not only a matter of truth in labeling, but also a matter of what is best for consumers, the environment, and for sustainable agriculture. Organic agriculture is free of chemicals that have been linked to various types of cancers.  Patrick Smith of Loftus Ranch (Yakima, Washington) and other farmers are working diligently to close the gap for organic crop yields.  Smith explains:  “As our collective knowledge of organic hop production grows, I expect to see yields 75-80+ percent of conventional.”  As the soil fertility improves, crop yields improve without relying on conventional agriculture’s chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

While organic barley has been readily available to brewers since 2004, high quality and desired varieties of hops have been another story.  I explain why hops are important to brewers using an artistic “Crayon Box”-analogy.  Non-organic brewers have 64 colors in their crayon box (hops) with which to make beautiful art (beer); organic brewers only have 24 colors in their crayon box, and while the art is equally beautiful with those same colors, the selection of only primary colors and a few specialties limits the hues and tones of our organic art.  Personally, I’ve used the reduced palate of color as a challenge to brew more varied beers like Chocolate Stout using organic cocoa for a rich texture and bitterness, or Honey Basil Ale using organic honey and organic basil to add nuance and flavor to the brew.  In the years ahead, I see my organic hop Crayon Box being nearly as full as the other kids’ boxes.

Handful of Hops
I give kudos to the USDA for its foresight developing the organic hops market with their rulemaking as far back as 2002.  If the “commercial availability” clause, and later the formal hop exemption, did not exist, a brewer like me who wished to brew organically just wouldn’t have been able to do so for lack of a critical ingredient.  Even if one or two of my beers could be made organically, I could have never have scaled demand for organic beer by selling unflavorful brews.  Dozens of domestic farmers now make hops for Bison – previously they were reluctant to go through the time and expense of converting their acreage to organic without a clear long-term customer.

As recently as 2010, only 100 acres of the 30,500 acres of hops in Washington’s Yakima Valley utilized organic methods of harvesting, a valley that accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world’s hops production. Today, there are at least 180 acres of organic hops grown in the Yakima Valley and hundreds more coming on line elsewhere; firm numbers will be available after this year’s hop harvest.  That is progress we can thank Uncle Sam for, and especially farmers who took the risk to literally grow this emerging organic hop marketplace.

Daniel Del Grande is Owner and Brewmaster, Bison Organic Beers

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