Local, organic beer and wine are delicious and eco-friendly options. Choosing local beverages encourages breweries and wineries to explore a diversity of flavors, and avoids the environmental costs of transporting wine and beer halfway across the country, or even halfway around the world.
Around the world, wine and beer are celebrated parts of many cultures, and these days, there’s more reason to celebrate than ever. Small breweries and wineries are thriving by crafting high quality, flavorful products. And with a growing number of breweries and wineries, it’s easier than ever before to find a wide variety of good wine and beer, including organic versions. As demand for organic products grows, more farmers are committing to producing grapes, barley and hops without chemical pesticides.
It’s all part of a renewed interest in local flavor and natural ingredients — so cheers to local and organic!
To understand what these changes mean for flavor, let’s start by considering microbrewed beer. Until recently, variety hasn’t been a feature of the American beer market, which is dominated by one style of beer. Budweiser, Coors and Miller are all American-style lagers, and the “lite” versions are American light lagers. But both styles of beer are especially light as beer goes, without much texture or depth of flavor.
In fact, as most beer lovers already know, there are dozens of official beer styles, all with distinctive colors, aromas, textures and flavors. And when brewing small batches of beer, brewers have the freedom to be creative. By contrast, many would say the mass-produced light lagers lack imagination. But there are a growing number of alternatives.
“It’s a great time to be a beer drinker in this country,” says Paul Gatza, director of the national Brewers Association. “There are over 1,400 breweries making beer today — 30 years ago there were 40. We’re in an age of exploration for people who enjoy flavorful beers.” Gatza explains that this trend started in the 1980s when many states began to relax legal restrictions on brewing and brewpubs sprang up across the country. “They really laid the educational groundwork that there are these styles out there, that the beer world is bigger than domestic light lager,” Gatza says.
The industry term for beer made by small breweries in a range of styles is “craft beer.” Gatza says that while all craft beer is growing fast, small regional microbreweries are growing even faster. He explains that flavor and variety are driving the industry, but people also choose local beer because it supports local businesses and addresses environmental concerns, such as the amount of energy consumed by transporting beer across the country.
As craft beer grows in popularity, Gatza says it’s becoming more widely available. “Wholesalers and retailers are starting to take notice.” Another good sign: Some of the most specialized beer is the most popular. Gatza says seasonal releases are some of the breweries’ best sellers.“The future bodes very well for even more exploration for the flavorful beer drinker,” Gatza says.
While the number of breweries has taken off, the number of wineries has grown rapidly, too. “In the 1960s there were about 300 wineries in the United States, and now there are over 5,000,” says Jeremy Benson, executive director of the wine-promoting organization Free the Grapes. He explains that most of these wineries are family owned and operated, with just four or five employees. These small wineries aren’t producing the cheapest wines available on the market, but they’re making small batches with distinctive flavors, and increasingly they’ve become popular stops for tourists.
Though wine production in the United States is usually associated with California, wineries and vineyards are actually widespread; there’s now at least one winery in each of the 50 states. Most states are using locally adapted grapes or other kinds of fruit entirely, such as cherries, plums or elderberries. The end product may be unfamiliar to those accustomed to cabernet, chardonnay and other grape varieties that grow well in warm, dry climates — such as those of France, Italy and California. But the wide diversity of wines available across the country is a wonderful opportunity for adventurous wine tasters and those seeking local flavor.
But there’s a reason the organization Benson works for is called “Free the Grapes.” While small wineries around the country are becoming popular, the laws about shipping wine are oddly complex. It’s easy if the great new winery you’ve discovered is within your home state. But if you fall in love with a winery across one or more state lines, you may or may not be able to have it shipped to your home. The same thing is true if you want to buy organic wine and search for a source online.
In 33 states — at last count — shipping wine directly to the customer is perfectly legal; in the 17 others, it’s not. And the penalties for wineries that ship wine illegally are enough to put them out of business. It’s such a complex legal situation, it actually went to the Supreme Court in 2005. The good news is that a favorable court decision has changed the laws in several states, and the majority of people in the United States can now freely order wine from out of state.
Benson says the best way to find out whether wine can be shipped to your home is to contact the individual winery you’re interested in. You can also find more information about state laws here.
While the growth of small breweries and wineries is driven by people exploring new and better flavors, organic breweries and wineries are growing because of the desire for natural, sustainably grown ingredients, and their increasing availability. Abram Goldman-Armstrong is one of the founders of the Organic Brewers Organization, an association of brewpubs and microbreweries that produce organic beer.
“I personally see organic as the next logical step in the craft brewing revolution,” Goldman-Armstrong says. He explains that until 100 years ago, all barley and hops were raised organically, because the chemical pesticides used today simply weren’t available. For people who want to use traditional methods to make beer, it’s natural to want to use organic ingredients.
But it’s not just about tradition, there are environmental factors, too. “You can feel better about what’s gone into an organic beer. You know there haven’t been thousands of pounds of fertilizers and herbicides that have gone into producing it,” Goldman-Armstrong says. “When you’re drinking a non-organic beer, you’re still buying into that at some level.”
Organic beer is getting easier to find. Major breweries are introducing their own brands, including Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale from Anheuser Busch. Organic is also growing at the microbrewery level: New Belgium Brewing Co. has a new organic beer called Mothership Wit, and more brewpubs are offering organic beers, too. Goldman-Armstrong says many breweries started by making just one organic beer, rather than going completely organic.
One brewpub that has wholeheartedly embraced organic beer is Ukiah Brewing Co. in Ukiah, Calif., the first certified organic brewpub in the United States. Not only do they make their own organic beer, they also serve organic wine. All their food is organic, as well. Brewmaster and owner Bret Cooperrider says that when his family decided to open the brewpub eight years ago, they were already dedicated environmentalists and committed to making the operation organic. “I feel that we have an ultra-clean, ultra-pure product,” he says.
Cooperrider says the biggest challenge of making organic beer is finding organic hops. “There are only about seven organic hops available right now, and that limits what you can do with beer.” The other main ingredient in beer is malted barley, and that isn’t always easy to find either. “I’d say that organic malt is more widely available, but it’s still pretty difficult to get,” he says. Ideally, he’d like to buy not only organic, but local ingredients, too. For now, he’s able to get enough organic hops from a local farmer to brew one special seasonal beer every year, a fresh hop ale named Spyrock Special after the part of the county the hops come from.
Goldman-Armstrong says that organic beer will become more available as brewers start working with local farmers to convince them that the demand for organic ingredients is there. In the same way, he says that more breweries will start producing organic beers when customers keep asking for them and drinking those that are available. “Vote with your pint glass,” Goldman-Armstrong says. “It does make a difference.”
In the case of organic wine, many farmers and customers are already convinced. The organic wine business is growing rapidly, and you can find organic wine in more and more liquor stores across the country.
LaRocca Vineyards is one of northern California’s many small organic wineries. Philip LaRocca’s family farms 200 acres, and produces 20,000 cases of wine annually. “When we started this business 20 years ago my wife and I were already into organic,” LaRocca says. “We thought it was simply a healthier lifestyle.”
Unlike with beer, finding the organic ingredients isn’t the biggest problem. Many organic wines are made with certified organic ingredients and are labeled “made with organic grapes.” However, going 100 percent organic is more of an issue, because that means making wine without sulfur dioxide, a common preservative.
LaRocca wine is unusual in having a “100 percent organic” label. Learning how to make wine without sulfur dioxide took some work, but LaRocca was determined to do it. He’s against the use of chemical preservatives in general, but he’s also specifically concerned about sulfite sensitivities. He explains that non-organic winemakers can use about 100 different chemicals in their wine. “Sulfur dioxide is the only one the public has to be informed about,” he says. “There’s a reason for that.” A small percentage of people have sulfite sensitivies, and drinking nonorganic wine can cause them to break out in rashes or have other allergic reactions. This sensitivity is well documented and is most prevalent in people with asthma. Wine naturally contains some sulfites, but because it contains no added sulfur dioxide, most people with sulfite sensitivities can drink 100 percent organic wine without a problem.
In most cases, there’s no obvious distinction in flavor between organic and conventional wine — although starting with healthy fruit and completely eliminating pesticide residues and preservatives can’t hurt. But there’s a very noticeable difference in the style of farming, because not spraying with chemical pesticides requires a different approach.
“The concept behind organic agriculture is to build healthy soil,” LaRocca says. “We spent a lot of those early years just building the soil.” He explains that they still use about 300 tons of compost annually, and further improve the soil with cover crops.
Nonorganic grapes are a heavily sprayed crop, and it’s reassuring to know that the soil, water and air of an organic vineyard are free of pesticides, not only for the health of the land, but also for the benefit of the people who work there and those who live nearby. And it’s good for the crop, too. Over the years, LaRocca says he’s seen all the effort pay off not only in the quality of the wine, but also in the health of the grapes. “Our fruit is just beautiful,” he says.
If you enjoy good beer and wine, it’s surprisingly simple to make your own. Brewing and winemaking require minimal special equipment to get started, and when you make your own you can make any style you like and try out local or organic ingredients. Supplies are available by mail order, and there are numerous Web forums, brew club meetings and other gathering places for homebrewers and winemakers.
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, Third Edition by Charles Papazian
From Vines to Wines: The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine by Jeff Cox
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Selling organic products is one way to go green, but breweries and wineries aren’t stopping there. Another place breweries and wineries are on the cutting edge of eco-friendly practices is by exploring renewable energy. New Belgium Brewing Co. has made the commitment to buying their electricity from wind power, and celebrated by naming one of their beers Loft.
Sierra Nevada is also experimenting with clean energy by powering their brewery through an energy efficient setup that includes a fuel cell. Wineries are getting into the act, too.
For example, at Frog’s Leap winery solar panels in their vineyards generate more electricity than the winery consumes.
Organic beer is widely available throughout the United States, so you’re more likely than ever to find it in local brewpubs, local liquor stores and natural foods stores. Nationally distributed U.S. brands include Wolavers and Peak Organic. Anheuser Busch, Butte Creek Brewing, New Belgium and Goose Island also offer organic beers, as does Samuel Smith, a widely available import.
If you’re looking for a source of organic wine, it seems logical to turn to the Internet, but whether you can buy wine online depends on where you live. Learn about wine shipping laws in your state at www.freethegrapes.org. If you can legally order wine shipped to your home, online sources include www.organicwinepress.com and www.theorganicwinecompany.com. If not, numerous brands of organic wine are widely available. Look for them in local liquor stores and natural foods stores.
Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on Google+.
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