Organic Simcoe hop cone from Cowiche Canyon organic hop farm near Yakima

The US Dept of Agriculture has made a decision to require that organic beer be brewed with — organic hops!  Oddly, under the current rules, beer can be called organic even if it is brewed with non-organic hops.

That’s because of a little-known procedure that allows some products to be labeled organic even if they include things that are not organic.  It’s called the “National Organic Program’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, Section 205.606”, and the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board makes rules as to what can go on that.  They make their decisions based on their evaluation of whether organic components are a significant part of the product and are readily available.  It’s a very practical but obscure procedure that tries to figure out what really works in the real world.  Conceivably it has the potential for abuse, but is designed to be a professional determination based on evidence.   

Last month I (along with many other folks concerned about organic standards and organic beer) sent comments to the USDA’s  National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in support of removing hops (Humulus lupulus) from the, as a non- organically produced agricultural product allowed in or on processed products labeled as “organic.”  The current inclusion of hops on the National List means that producers of organically-certified beer do not have to use organic hops.  The American Organic Hop Growers Association’s (AOHGA) petitioned the USDA to change the current rules and I support removing hops from the National List for the following reasons:

  • ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Removal would stimulate the organic hop industry in Washington State.  The Yakima region produces 75% of the conventional hops used by US breweries.  But most brewers source their organic hops from Europe or New Zealand because the US organic hops market is weak due to the inclusion of hops on the National List in 2007. Progressive, large and small-scale family farms in the Northwest are currently growing organic hops or would choose to do so if there were greater demand by breweries.  We want to keep the jobs and revenue in Washington.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS: Growing hops without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will support the health of our farm and water resources.
  • BENEFITS TO SMALL BUSINESS:  Craft breweries are an important part of Washington’s economy.  Northwest breweries would use more organic hops if market conditions were conducive to competitive pricing. But the inclusion of hops on the National List has prevented a fair marketplace for hops. Because breweries are allowed to use non-organic hops in their organically certified beer, there is little incentive for them to purchase the more expensive organic hops.  Perceiving a weak market for organic hops, growers lack incentive to allocate resources to growing organic hops. As a result, the market risks currently inherent in organic hop production inhibit the growth potential of this important agricultural industry.

I am happy to report that at their annual meeting, the NOSB voted unanimously in favor of removing hops from the National List on January 1, 2013.  Its recommendation will now proceed to the National Organic Program’s rulemaking process to be finalized.  The two-year lead time will give hop growers time to identify, plant, and process specific quantities and varieties of hops and it will give brewers ample time to source organic hops for their organic beers.

It might seem strange for a Seattle elected official to weigh in on an issue so seemingly removed from Seattle’s priorities.  On the contrary, I did so because I know that my constituents want to buy and consume local, sustainably-produced products.  The resulting benefit to Yakima’s hop growers is precisely the sort of win-win central to my Seattle For Washington campaign. Another good reason to drink locally – it’s good for all of us!