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Organic beer is brewed with ingredients that are grown using sustainable, chemical-free farming methods. Choosing organic beer allows you to enjoy a beloved libation that is healthier for you and the planet.

Find it! Organic breweries

Beer brewed using organically farmed ingredients is commonly produced by independent craft beer and regional beer makers. However, in March and April of 2006, America's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, introduced two organic beers, Wild Hop lager and Stone Mill pale ale, in several test markets. Listed below is a selection of domestic and imported organic beers available on the market, along with their state or country of origin.

Before you buy

Similar to other organic foods on the market, the price for organic beer brewed by both mass producers and smaller breweries is higher than that of conventional beers. Craft and organic beers also contain a higher alcohol content: generally from 4 percent to 8 percent by weight compared to the 3.2 percent to 5.5 percent of mass-produced, conventional beers. Conventional beers contain less expensive ingredients, such as rice and corn, that add sugar but lighten the beer, resulting in a more watery taste and a lowered alcohol content.

Choosing organic beer helps you go green because…

  • The crops used in the brewing process are not sprayed with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are detrimental to humans, wildlife, and the environment.
  • Organic farming may help fight global climate change.
  • Organic farmers do not use genetically modified seeds.

Sales of organic beer in North America jumped from $9 million in 2003 to $19 million in 2006, according to the Organic Trade Association. Despite climbing sales, however, craft beer represented less than 4 percent of the total beer market in 2004, and organic beer represented just a small part of that figure.[1]

Conventional farming and chemicals

Beer is produced through multiple brewing methods and traditions using water, hops, yeasts, and malted agricultural grains, such as barley, wheat, corn, and
rice. When these ingredients are farmed conventionally, they are treated with chemical pesticides and fertilizers that not only harm human and animal health, but also pollute ecosystems and waterways. It is estimated that approximately 670 million birds are exposed to the pesticides used in farming annually, and 10 percent of these birds die as a result.[2] Residues of these chemical treatments remain in the finished product and may harm human health. (See Related health issues.)

Organic farming and climate change

Organic farming, which does not use any chemical pesticides and fertilizers, therefore helps to protect human and animal health, as well as waterways. It may also be key in fighting global climate change. During a 23-season study of conventional versus organic farming methods, the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration. In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.

Organic farming further reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by using 37 percent fewer fossil fuels than conventional farming.[3] The Rodale Institute estimates that if all 160 million acres of corn and soybean farmland in the US were switched to organic farming methods, it would be equivalent to removing 58.7 million cars from the road, and would satisfy 73 percent of the proposed US Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction.[4]

Genetic modification

Organic farmers also do not plant genetically modified seeds, which is a common practice in conventional farming. Studies now being examined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have shown that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) pose significant environmental risks, such as killing off living, natural organisms and causing some insects and weeds to become resistant to pesticides.

Organic certification

Like other food products, beer must meet the criteria set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be officially certified as organic: 95 percent of the ingredients must be grown in soil that has been free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years and it cannot contain genetically modified organisms. If between 95 and 70 percent of the ingredients used in processing are organic, the product receives a "Made with Organic Ingredients" certification.

Controversies

The move toward organic farming has received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, believes organic farming techniques to be detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of The Economist, he cites that the low yields of organic farming call for the destruction of more land while the use of the synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of crop in a small area of cultivated land. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resultant increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use. His stats have also been challenged by a 2008 report by the Agronomy Journal, which concluded that many organic, low-input crops can yield as much dry matter as conventional crops (and sometimes more) given the right weed control conditions.

Related health issues

The consumption of conventional beer puts consumers at risk of ingesting pesticide residues. In 2003, 17 percent of barley and 32 percent of wheat products tested positive for such chemicals. Organic beer tested positive for less than 5 percent.[5] A commonly identified chemical residue in the barley malting process is pirimiphos-methyl, which functions as a storage insecticide. The presence of this chemical in food products is not high enough to be considered a risk by the EPA, but high exposure in humans can lead to overstimulation of the nervous system and, at extreme levels, respiratory paralysis.

Additionally, organic and craft-brewed beers offer higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants—the darker the beer, the higher the levels—than conventional beers. Because mass-produced beers opt for cheaper malts such as rice and corn, (versus barley) the result is a paler, less nutrient-rich brew.

In general, beer, when not consumed in moderation, poses several health risks, including alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver, and various cancers. However, sensible drinking—the American Cancer Society defines this as no more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men—of beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages can be beneficial, as it has been found to decrease the fatal effects of heart disease, lowering the likelihood of death by 30 to 40 percent in comparison to nondrinkers.[6]

Glossary

  • carbon sequestration: The process by which carbon is captured (in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and incorporated into soil, ocean, and plant matter.
  • craft beer: Beer made by small, independent breweries, such as microbreweries, brewpubs, or at home, using traditional beer-making methods.
  • genetically modified organism (GMO): The result of merging the genetic makeup of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature.
  • hops: A perennial flowering plant—a distant relative of the Cannabis plant—used in flavoring and preserving beer in the brewing process.

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