Staring at a tomato in the grocery store, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine what its USDA organic label signifies: no pesticides, no harmful chemical sprays, no genetic modification. But staring at a glass of pale ale, and it’s harder to picture just what a certified organic beer means.
I called Chicago’s Greenstar Brewing, a nine-month-old offshoot of longstanding organic restaurants Uncommon Ground, to ask exactly what organic certification means for a brewery, how hard it is to source organic beer ingredients, and whether that makes the beer more expensive to brew and drink. As Illinois’ first certified organic brewery, Greenstar knows the process has unique challenges and payoffs. The bottom line, and the good news for drinkers in search of a “green” beer, is that brewing organic beer is getting easier.
“I talked to some of the guys in Chicago who’d been brewing for 20 years and back in the day, you just could not get these [organic] ingredients,” says Greenstar brewer Martin Coad. “There hadn’t been a lot of it out there, but right now there is a growing market of more farmers growing certified organic malts and hops.”
To be certified as an organic brewery, Greenstar’s beers must be made with 95 percent certified organic ingredients, and Coad must provide paperwork and proof of organic certification to MOSA (Midwest Organic Services Association). Coad says the brewery comes in at about 99.6% organic ingredients; that last pesky 0.4% represents the yeast, which the yeast lab does not classify as certified organic. Because more breweries demand organic malts and hops, though, those suppliers have risen to meet demand. Coad is pleased that he can source these ingredients not just organically, but locally.
“One of our major hop suppliers called New Mission Organics is out of Michigan, and they’re producing some fantastic hops that we use in our flagship IPA and APA at the brewery,” he says. “There is a craft maltster I’m going to work with in Michigan called Pilot Malt House, and their new warehouse will have a portion that’s certified organic. That will allow me to work with them and make custom malt blends.”
He also sources organic ingredients from Uncommon Ground’s rooftop garden. Some black currants from the garden, for example, became a part of Greenstar’s black currant kolsch, one of the brewery’s most popular seasonal brews.
But as anyone who’s shopped at Whole Foods knows, organic ingredients can cost more than their conventional counterparts. Does this hurt the brewery’s profits, or make their beers more expensive?
“Of course it does affect our bottom line,” Coad says. “It costs a little more for organic food when you go to the grocery store, but for the overall bottom line here, we’re looking at cents on the dollar. Our pint prices compare to any other pints in the neighborhood, around $5 or $6.”
Mostly, making organic beer means a lot more paperwork. Each recipe must be submitted to MOSA, and every organic ingredient must be accompanied by an up-to-date USDA certificate from its supplier. Still, Coad says it’s worth the effort, and he hopes to take Greenstar’s organic mission to an even larger audience.
“Our beer is available exclusively at Uncommon Ground right now, because everything we’re producing we’re selling to those taps or in growlers at our Clark Street brewery,” he says. “We do want to do limited distribution around Chicago in the future though, to organic co-ops and Whole Foods, places that focus on local and sustainable food.”