Organic Hops: Make Quality Beer AND Benefit the Environment (I’ll Drink To That!)

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Let’s face it.  It’s hard to ignore the fact that climate change is wreaking havoc on the planet.  From super storms, massive fires, floods and even the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, all things are screaming at us that we need to think long and hard about ways to reverse our impacts.

Agriculture is routinely fingered as a major player in the environmental degradation conversation.  That means many people are looking for opportunities to lower their impacts through their choices of food and drinks.  

Organic products, including organic beer, are seeing significant increases in the global marketplace.  What was once a quaint specialty product is now a mainstream powerhouse for gaining traction into new markets and reaching new consumers.

Hops is one of the four essential elements making up beer which are typically listed as: barley malt, yeast, hops and water.  Understanding what goes into making quality organic hops can help you to make better decisions for your beer, whether you are a brewmaster or a casual consumer.

Let’s take a look at what it takes to grow and market organic hops and how all the benefits add up to a great big glass of good cheer.

Hops – The Bitter Bine

The hop plant, Humulus lupulus, can grow 6 m (20 ft) in a year and usually puts out 4 to 6 bines per plant.

What is a bine?  A plant that climbs upward by wrapping around a support, like the hop plant, is called a bine.  A vine, on the other hand, climbs by wrapping tendrils or suckers around a support – think green peas or pole beans.

Hop Bines Climbing Rope

The long bines of a hop plant produce female flowers or cones that are harvested and dried or pelleted for use in beer. All commercially available beers on the market contain hops, although it is possible to make beer without any.
Hops helps to counteract the sweetness of barley malt, and contributes aromas and bitterness to the flavor of the beer. It has significant antiseptic properties which help to stabilize the beer and keep it from spoiling.

What Are Organic Hops?

Just like organic fruit and vegetable production, organic hops are grown using natural production methods without any added chemicals such as inorganic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.  

Organic hop farmers must keep meticulous records of their production process and meet the standards of their organic certifying body in order to market their product as “organic hops”.

As a consumer, organic hops gives you certainty that the product you are buying  is 100% natural and will not contain any chemical residues that might find their way into your beer.

How Does a Farm Become Certified Organic?

Growers who want to produce organic hops go through a rigorous application and vetting process by the organization that will grant the certification.  

This organic certification process looks at every component and procedure the farm will use to plant and grow hops including the:

  • Rhizomes to be planted,
  • Soil conditions and quality,
  • Fertilization plan with no inorganic chemical additives,
  • Pest management plan with no synthetic pesticides,
  • Disease management plan with no chemical treatments,
  • Weed management plan with no herbicides,
  • Trellis materials with no toxic preservatives,
  • Harvesting processes and equipment that are clean and effective,
  • Cone collection processes,
  • Drying processes, and
  • Packaging.

It can take two to three years for a farm to successfully transition to organic status.  Once achieved, the farm can market its hops as “certified organic”.

In Canada, only third party certification bodies that are designated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) can issue organic certification to farms.

The process is similar in the United States where an entity accredited by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspects and certifies that a farm fully complies with the US Organic Regulation.  

There are agreements in place whereby products from anywhere in the world can be certified if they meet the accepted standards of organic production and are verified by the appropriate agencies.  These certifications carry marketing brands and symbols to tell the consumer that the farm and the product have met the standards of organic production.

(Left to Right) Canada Organic, EU Organic & USDA Organic Seals

The Unconventional Difference

Organic hops farmers do not use synthetic chemicals before, during or after hops harvests unlike their conventional counterparts.

That means organic farmers must work with nature and natural processes to boost soil fertility, minimize weeds, manage pests and discourage plant diseases.

They also have to pay close attention to the drying process to ensure that the cone quality remains high.

Growing without chemicals means doing things differently

What Are the Biggest Challenges for Organic Hop Growers?

Hop plants are fast growing so they require large amounts of nitrogen during the growing season.  This has to be provided by compost and cover crops in an organic production system.  Careful planning and ongoing monitoring of plant growth is required for high yields.

The plants are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases.  The major pests include 2-spotted spider mites and aphids, both of which suck nutrients from the leaves and can reduce harvests if left unchecked.  Japanese beetles are an issue in some areas.  

Both downy and powdery mildew can be a problem in some seasons, climates and in years of particularly dense bine growth. 

All of these issues must be handled by the grower through the careful selection of hops varieties and cultivation practices. A grower must also spend more time in the field to catch new problems early and react appropriately before pest numbers get out of hand.

Benefits of Organic Hops

Environmental

Better Soil

Organic production methods favor minimum tilling and disturbance of the soil. Because organic hop plants are typically grown as perennials with cover crops to enrich the soil with nitrogen, the soil remains undisturbed longer than in many other crop systems.  This promotes soil health and soil biodiversity.

Healthy soils affect human health in a wide variety of ways.  They contribute to our long term ability to produce food crops, mitigate mineral deficiencies, determine our exposure to heavy metals and other toxins and even have an influence on our digestive systems (ref).

Digging Some Dirt

Better Water

Conventional agriculture with high tillage and synthetic chemical usage can contribute to the contamination of rivers and streams through sedimentation and leaching processes.  In some cases the chemicals make it all the way into the groundwater.  Pesticides have now been found in 70% of the aquifers in the US.

Organic hop farming does not contribute to the sediment or chemical loading of rivers, streams and groundwater.

Better Air

Organic hop farms must manage their soils and systems in ways that promote a healthy environment.  Hop plants produce huge volumes of leaves and plant materials each year which soak up carbon dioxide.  

These materials are then composted and returned to the soil to promote better soil health. Recent studies have shown that deep organic soils can capture and store carbon as efficiently as a forest. 

This combination of rapid plant growth and deep organic soil systems means that every organic hop farm is working hard to fight climate change in contrast to many other conventional farm systems that are only causing further damage.

Stronger Biodiversity

Hop farms provide a refuge for many species and this can contribute to local biodiversity.  The incredible vertical structures and foliage created by growing hops support a wide array of species that may not be found on a typical farm.  

Although hop flowers are wind pollinated and so do not attract bees, many of the cover crops planted to enhance soil nitrogen do.  That means that many types of insects, birds, mammals and in some cases amphibians and reptiles, are attracted to the plant diversity in the fields and spend time among the bines. 

Because there are no synthetic chemicals in use on the farm, these visitors are able to come and go unharmed by the hop production happening around them.

Creating food production in harmony with the surrounding natural ecosystem is one of the cornerstones of organic farming.

Butterfly Resting on a Flower

Economic

Promotes Small Farm Success

Many organic hop farms are small family run businesses.  Small farms are essential to the vitality of local communities and they provide a breeding ground for entrepreneurs, new products, improved practices and sustainability.

When you buy organic, you are supporting a network of small businesses and people dedicated to quality without environmental impacts.

Fosters Niche Markets

Organic hops opens up opportunities for the creation of new beers and new markets.  Everyone is looking for the ‘one thing’ that will differentiate their products in a sea of products available.  Being able to sell based on organic ingredients and principles can provide a small craft beer operation with a competitive advantage.

Social

Protects Farm Workers

Agricultural operations carry their share of risk for farm workers because of the demanding nature of farm jobs. Even with full personal protective gear, many farm workers end up exposed to known carcinogens in conventional systems.

However, organic hop production eliminates the synthetic chemical risks for workers and provides a cleaner system in which to earn a living.

Protects Consumers

Last, but in no way least, organic hops ensures that you – the consumer – are getting 100% natural flavor in your beer.  There is no need to worry that chemical residues are infecting your organic beer of choice.

A Pre-Covid Social Gathering

In Summary

In Summary

Organic hops provide an incredible opportunity to make quality beer while not compromising the environment or the economy. The organic certification process helps to provide the critical verifications needed to ensure the product is safe and meets organic standards of production. 

Dedicated teams of hop farmers, marketers and brewmasters are bringing organic beer to the forefront as part of a sustainable agriculture system that is protecting soil, water, air, biodiversity and human health.

Consider how organic hops can give your beer a market advantage.  Or raise a glass of organic beer to the folks who do.

I’ll drink to that!


~Sue Senger, PhD, RPBio, PAg- Contributing Writer

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