The end of organic hop production?

Heather, Roger (who is hosting the majority of our hops research), and I just returned from a trip to the Yakima Valley in Washington, a trip whose purpose was to connect with hop growers and researchers from all over the country. Many fascinating things were seen and learned while we were there, tales of which I shall regale you with in the months to come. Of particular interest at this point in time was the acquaintance formed with Patrick Smith and his brother Kevin, of Loftus Ranches. Patrick is the Vice President of the American Organic Hop Grower Association.

I don’t know if you’ve heard the latest buzz about the USDA National Organic Standards Board and organic hops? The long and short of the story is that currently hops are on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, under section 205.606, meaning that beer labeled “organic” can and does include conventionally grown hops. Organic beer does not mean organic hops. Hops were put on the National List in June 2007 when organic hops were mostly produced overseas, primarily in New Zealand and Europe. Since that time, American growers have made significant advances in the area of organic hop production, to the point where the AOHGA, in coalition with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Anheuser-Busch, Lakefront Brewery, Seven Bridges Cooperative, and Hopunion LLC, petitioned the USDA to remove hops from the National List in December of 2009.

Earlier in September, the Handling Committee of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted 6 – 0 to leave hops on the National List, stating that “On the basis of written and public comment in response to this petition to remove, organic hops were deemed not to be available in the form, quantity, or quality to currently justify removal from 205.606. To do so would negatively impact the organic brewing industry.” They also said that “although some varieties of hops were available as organic, not all varieties are equal, and many varieties used for specific flavor profiles or beer types were not available.” This suggests that all 150 hop varieties must be available organically before the NOSB will consider removing hops from the National List. Keep in mind, of course, that not all barley varieties are available organically (nor is this true for a multitude of organic crops), and yet organic barley is required in organic beer. Quite simply, for a grower to commit to growing all hop varieties organically, without a market to sell to, would be neither economical nor logistically feasible.

The NOSB is meeting on October 25th and 27th in Madison, WI to pass final judgment on this issue for the foreseeable future.  The AOHGA is asking that hops be phased off of the National List. Abrupt removal would negatively impact both the breweries and the growers, since the acreage currently committed to organic production is not enough to meet organic brewing demands. Phasing hops off of the list would not only give the growers a chance to meet the production demands, but also to meet the varietal demands. Currently, since no one is demanding organic hops, growers don’t know what varieties are of greatest interest to organic breweries.

Both the AOHGA and Patrick’s blog outline the situation far better than I could, and I encourage you to check them out for further information.

Wondering what you can do? Leave a written comment for the NOSB, the deadline for written comments is October 12th.

Alternatively, if you’re going to be in Madison, Wisconsin on Monday, October 25th or Wednesday, October 27th… The NOSB will be hearing in-person comments. Contact Lisa Ahramjian at nosb@ams.usda.gov or (202) 720-3252 to reserve a 5-minute slot, making note of your desired date and topic. The deadline is Tuesday, October 12, 2010.

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