On Tap: Organic Beer
Tasty new organic beer brands are storming the market.
I love talking to Christina Perozzi, the unofficial head honcho of the "Beer Chicks," a loose-knit group of women who know and like their suds (more officially, Christina is the beer sommelier at the trendy Library Bar in downtown Los Angeles). Christina's got a twitchy mind, which means you start talking about some great Mexican chicken dish-and that reminds her of this mole made with a smoky lager beer, which reminds her of her favorite Los Angeles-area brewery, Craftsman Brewing, which then gets her going on "the whole organic beer thing" because her buddy Mark Jilg, the owner of Craftsman, had been talking about brewing an organic beer "for ages but he couldn't get organic hops. I think Anheuser-Busch bought them all up."
So from grilled chicken to organic beer in one minute or less. But she brings up interesting points. Beginning with "the whole organic beer thing" and the role Anheuser-Busch is playing in the movement. If you hadn't heard, the makers of the world's No. 1 and No. 2 best-selling beers in the world (Bud Light and Budweiser) last year began selling not just one but two organic beers, Stone Mill Pale Ale and Wild Hop Lager. That's not so shocking when you consider that according to the most recent figures available from the Organic Trade Association, organic beer sales increased 40 percent in 2005, while overall beer sales fell.
I had no idea that this niche was, shall we say, developing such a foamy head. So one Saturday morning I moseyed down to my local purveyor of fine beverages (better known as Hi-Time) and asked the resident beer dude, Mike McCullah, if he carried any organic beers. He laughed. "Are you kidding? Only about 40 or 50 of them. The category is getting huge."
Mike and I spent a good hour perusing his extensive stock and, limiting ourselves to brands with wide distribution (there are also many good microbrews available regionally), he helped me select a sampler to take home for further investigation. Now my first thought was just to have a go at it myself, but the task seemed daunting, particularly since it wasn't quite noon. But a better solution appeared when my wife arrived back from a long hike with several friends.
Why not have them taste test these beers? I thought. Hot, sweaty and impossibly thirsty-they were all for it. I started by pouring a very pale pilsner from Butte Creek, moved on to the lagers and pale ales, and finished with a thick, almost black oatmeal stout from Vermont, Wolaver's, one of the first organic brewers in the country.
Butte Creek, which has been brewing organic beers in Chico, California, since 1998, has a clear winner with its pilsner. "It's very elegant," said one hiker. Not a word I'd use, but she was right. The color of an oaky chardonnay, it's very dry with a nice hoppy finish, reminding me of a classic European beer like Stella Artois.
Bison Brewing, which started life as a Berkeley, California, brew pub, now only brews organic beers (it's part of a co-op with Butte Creek). "I don't know what it is, but this beer just really tastes fresh," said one of the tasters about Bison's pale ale. Was it because it was organic?
The tasters also liked the Wild Hop Lager-the Anheuser-Busch brew-which was the color of honey and had a nice spicy aroma. (I liked it as well but think it's misnamed; it's not a hoppy beer at all but with a name like Wild Hop, you expect it to be.)
The final beer of the afternoon was the Wolaver's Oatmeal Stout, which got a decidedly mixed reception. "Too smoky for me," said one. "Too bitter," said another.
As for me, I love stouts-it was my favorite brew in the bunch. It had more of a bittersweet taste to it-like the Mexican chocolate used in a mole. There was a silkiness to it that made me think of a smooth dessert with lots of mouthfeel-like chocolate pudding.
So try it-and other organic beers-for yourself and see what you think. Does organic make a difference in taste? Does organic make a difference in taste? We'd be curious to hear your thoughts and your favorite organic brew picks.
David Lansing regularly writes about wine and spirits for EatingWell.
An Organic 6-Pack
Listed from light to dark:
Butte Creek Organic Pilsner. Soft palate with an elegant, dry finish. Excellent as an aperitif. buttecreek.com
Wild Hop Lager. Refreshing, light, with a touch of citrus flavor. A good sipping beer. wildhoplager.com
Stone Mill Pale Ale. Beautiful cider color and fresh barley malt nose. Great barbecue beer. stonemillpaleale.com
Bison IPA. Very fruity beer with a great hoppy finish. Excellent with grilled meat and strong cheeses. bisonbrew.com
Eel River I.P.A. Lots of crisp, hoppy dryness and a big mouthfeel. Perfect for hearty food like chili. eelriverbrewing.com
Wolaver's Oatmeal Stout. Well-rounded, smooth black brew with burnt chocolate malt character. wolavers.com