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Craft Beer Brewers Go Organic

Author // Jeff Wharton

As you've probably noticed, April is the month of DrinkCraftBeer.com featuring sustainable brewing practices on our site. Obviously we couldn't have this theme without focusing on organic craft beer brewers! Organic is one of the earlier sustainability/environmental trends and it survives to this day. Also, we now have a couple breweries in New England focusing completely on organic beer production. I spoke with Max Oswald, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Wolaver's Organic Ales (Middlebury, VT), and Jon Cadoux, Co-Owner and Brewer for Peak Organic Ales (Portland, ME). What did I find out? Well, we know that professionally running a brewery is hard work... Now imagine running a brewery and having to acquire organic grain and hops that are in dangerously low supply and having to jump through government hoops to maintain your USDA Organic Certification. These were just some of the things I learned from talking with these two steadfast advocates of organic and sustainable methods of producing food and grain.

While both companies have similar ideals now, their geneses could not have been farther apart. Wolaver's Organic Ales was started by two brothers, Robert and Morgan Wolaver, in 1997 as Panorama Brewing Company in California. They had an organic farm in Hawaii and wanted to bring more attention to organic farming. They saw the brewery as a chance to directly support organic farming and sustainable practices, which they still do to this day in Vermont. Originally the idea was to have 6 partner breweries across the country contract brewing their organic ales, each producing beer for their own region. Eventually the inefficiencies of having several different brewery setups caught up with them, and they decided to consolidate the operation, selecting their best performer/producer, Otter Creek. The Wolavers were looking to sell their brand but, in one of those twists of fate that can happen, left the meeting still owning the organic beer company but now also the proud owners of Otter Creek Brewing Company and it's brewery.

Conversely, Jon Cadoux of Peak Organic ales started out brewing first. He's a self-described foodie, into good coffee, beer, etc... As he put it, he's basically "passionate about what goes in our mouths. Locally and sustainably grown products just taste better than engineered and pesticide protected." He started homebrewing 10-11 years ago and shortly afterwards began using organic and local ingredients. He and his friends immediately noticed a taste difference from the organic ingredients and locally grown grain. In 2005 Cadoux noticed that there was a market for organic craft beers and that his friends and others loved his brews, so he jump in head first. Peak Organic still doesn't own their own brewing facility, but rather rents time on Shipyard Brewing Company's brewery. Peak has their own brewers and recipes, their fermentation tanks and ingredients are kept separate and they are a totally distinct entity from Shipyard. Not owning the physical asset of a brewery has just allowed them to keep down overhead while they build their brand, which makes sense given what they're up against.

One of the main obstacles that both Wolaver's and Peak have run up against is a lack of organic brewing ingredients. As Peak's Cadoux put it, "there is an abysmal supply of local organic hops... and there isn't the global supply to support what is needed, either." But there is a light at the end of this tunnel. The poundage of organic hops in the ground have increased greatly in the past few years now that there is a known market for them. Before it was a Catch-22, nobody would grown organic hops because there wasn't demand, so nobody could brew with organic hops because there weren't any being grown. Just to prove that they're innovating as fast as the producers can keep up, Peak produced several new beers this year, including an amazing Espresso Amber Ale (featured in our 'Tis the Season for Craft Beer & Cookies beer-pairing event) and a Maple Oat Ale. They also just debuted an IPA (above right) that really packs a solid hop kick, using both Amarillo and Simcoe hops. All of these they introduced while maintaining production of their Pale Ale (below left & featured in our upcoming "Eat Local, Drink Local" beer and food pairing event on Saturday, April 24th at the Wine Gallery in Brookline), Amber Ale (above left) and Brown Ale. Meanwhile, under new brewer Mike Gerhart, Wolaver's has released several new beers under their Farmers Series line-up.

Both companies look to use local ingredients when possible. As mentioned above, the Wolaver brothers wanted to support and expand local organic farming. This has led Wolaver's to create their Farmers Series, a series of ales named after the farmers who grow the ingredients used in the beer. When Wolaver's needed pumpkins for their Pumpkin Ale, they worked with Vermont farmer Will Stevens to provide the pumpkins necessary to this brew. The resulting beer? Will Stevens Pumpkin Ale (right). When they were concerned about the impact of flying organic hops in from New Zealand, they partnered with Oregon hop-farmer Pat Leavy (hey, Oregon is local compared to New Zealand!) to grow them organic hops. The result? You guessed it, Pat Leavy's All-American Ale (above right) produced from ingredients 100% grown in the United States. The latest addition to the series, Ben Gleason's White Ale (above left), is named after their Vermont-based organic wheat producer. As Max put it, "Here's a beer named after the guy who grew the crop." Yeah, that sounds like supporting your local organic farm to me! They're also working on a North East hops initiative that would have local farmers growing organic hops to cut their supply distances down.

Some of you may have read over the past year or two that wheat and grain prices have skyrocketed. While this has been tough on many breweries, Cadoux says that Peak has been partially shielded from these fluctuations. They buy from a lot of little local suppliers rather than spot buy from the big guys. This keeps them apart from global demand fluctuations and closer to the New England farmers that they buy from and try to support. When they started, Cadoux and some others went around to many farms to find the best oats, the best grain, the best maple syrup, etc. He says it creates a little bit of complication but he loves doing business this way and wouldn't change it at all.

As far as brewing organic beer at a non-organic brewery, they've got that covered too. Peak had the Shipyard brewery certified organic. Furthermore, the Peak brewers are normally the first batch of the day, when the equipment is at it's cleanest. They keep their raw materials separate and have a full-time employee who manages the organic certification. Cadoux says it's a little difficult but that's what makes it worth it. "If it were easy, that might cheapen the certification," he says.

Right now the biggest problems facing both breweries are a lack of supply in quality organic brewing ingredients. That said, things are much better now than even a few years ago. With brewers like Peak Organic and Wolaver's producing quality organic ales, farmers have seen that there is a market for organic ingredients. Every year more and more options are opened up flavor-wise. As Cadoux put it as we wrapped up our conversation, "There's a lot of great new organic strains of hops coming out next year... a lot of high-alpha acid strains. I can't tell you what, but look for some exciting new beers from Peak next year." We believe him... we're definitely excited to see what lays in the future for both Peak Organic Ales and Wolaver's Organic Ales. If it's anything like that past, it will be delicious and environmentally conscious beer that you can enjoy and feel good about supporting local agriculture at the same time!