Is organic craft beer really worth drinking?

Hops, like those pictured above, are a critical ingredient in most beers.
Courtesy of Crosby Hop Farm

Finding a craft beer is easy. Finding an organic craft beer? Well, that’s another matter entirely.

Despite the artisanal nature of the craft beer industry, the majority of brewers have opted to forego obtaining organic certification. But those who have embraced the concept of organic brewing are quite passionate about it.

“What organic represents is the absence of carcinogenic pesticides on the ingredients,” says Arthur Lucas, founder of Charleston, SC’s Freehouse Brewery. “Getting the label lets me communicate with people. It’s about informing the public.”

While organic craft beer is still a miniscule part of the overall market, interest in it seems to be growing. The Brewers Association says it doesn’t track organic as a category. But Nielsen, in a Q&A with the association last December, said it had seen organic crafts grow 20.7% in dollar volume between Dec. 2013 and Dec. 2014. And earlier this month, roughly three dozen brewers converged to pour their products at the 11th annual North American Organic Brewers Festival.

The big hurdles

Just like groceries, organic hops and malts cost more than their non-organic alternatives – sometimes by as much as 40%. While the overall impact to a brewery’s total bottom line is much less than that (since ingredient costs are just one part of a brewery’s expenses), it’s still enough to raise eyebrows, especially for a low margin microbrewery.

Those costs, though, can’t necessarily be passed along to the consumer. “We’ve taken a stance that we’re going to try to stay price-competitive,” says Townes Mozer, head brewer/owner of Charlotte’s Lenny Boy Brewing Co. “We’re eating a little bit on the margin, but we do it to get people in the door.”

Lucas, though, notes it’s not just the higher price that’s problematic. The time costs associated with finding those ingredients can run the bill up further. “There’s another cost that’s hard to predict and that’s if [an ingredient] is harder to find,” he says. “I could be chasing after a farmer whose fax machine is on the blink three time zones away – and he’s the only lead on who has what I need. What’s the cost of that?”

Some organic brewers are making things even more difficult for themselves supply-wise. California’s Dr. Jekyll’s uses not only organic traditional ingredients, but super foods, such as acai berry, turmeric and algal oil. “We’ve taken three high growth markets – craft beer, organic and nutraceuticals – and combined them into one product,” says Tom Costa, president & CEO at Dr. Jekyll’s.

Complicating the organic/non-organic craft beer scene are brewers who straddle the line. While companies like Jester King and (512) Brewing don’t carry the certification, both use a number of organic ingredients. And some non-organic breweries – like Deschutes – offer organic beers alongside their other standards.

Whether an organic label ultimately helps sales or not remains unclear. Certainly, no organic brewery has reached a level of national notoriety among craft beer enthusiasts that’s on par with a non-organic brewer. But that could be due to fairly limited distribution territories.

And while some people might actively seek out beers with the organic label, ultimately that product’s success or failure comes down to taste. Wondering which to try? We’ve got a few recommendations below.

Dr Jekyll’s Bio Beer – This is not your typical IPA. In fact, it’s nowhere close to it. Instead of being hit with hops as you sip this concoction, you’ll get green tea, cloves and a fair amount of ginger mixed with the IPA flavors. And the finish is incredibly floral. The brewer also says it included acai berry, acerola berry, maitake mushroom and turmeric, but none of those flavors was distinctive to me. Is it for everyone? Nope. But if you’re interested in an IPA that’s outside the box – or turned off by overly hoppy offerings, it might be worth a try. (ABV: 6.5%)

Freehouse Ashley Farmhouse Ale – This Belgian-style ale is dry with a mild spiciness and a wonderful, light orange taste, with hints of ginger. There’s a mild funkiness to it, but nothing overwhelming. It’s a good food-pairing beer, that goes especially well with seafood. (ABV: 6.1%)

Freehouse Double Door IPA – While it’s only available at the brewery for now, it would be a crime not to mention Freehouse’s new DIPA. Bold and fresh, it’s incredibly well-balanced with even citrus and pine notes. It has a crisp, clean finish that hides the alcohol level. This is a DIPA that impressed people who don’t like hops – and if the quality stays at this level, might be Freehouse’s next great beer. (ABV: 8.2%)

Lenny Boy Tart de la Wit – A strong entry in the sour category, this witbier is fermented with South Carolina peaches. That fruity tanginess blends wonderfully with the wheat. And the hints of coriander are a wonderful addition. (ABV: 4.6%)

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