A Non-Irishman’s Guide to Green Beer (Part One)

This week, inspiration has been harder to find. A few days ago, a good friend asked me to edit her school assignment. I agreed, and was absolutely floored. Luckily, she agreed to let me use her writing as a guest post, in a three part series. She starts with an introduction. Melina Lamer, everybody…

I like beer. It reminds me of college parties, trips abroad, ice fishing, and camping trips, but it also reminds me of growing up in Alaska. My father used to brew beer for many years in our little basement, while I played on the floor next to him, with a little stuffed rabbit. Now 22, I like drinking a smooth beer almost as much as I like learning about the brewing process itself. In fact, I have even combined the two on many brewery tours throughout the United States and Europe. But as an Environmental Studies major with a focus in food justice and local food movements, I have not spent much time researching the sustainability movement in relation to the beverage market. Come to think of it, the only time I ever seem to connect sustainability with beverages is after I consume and either recycle or toss the beverage. I am glad I have been trained to consider the environment via mode of waste management, recycling, and landfills, but I had forgotten to realize that there are two upfront parts to our beverages – the container (which we are all aware of) AND the actual liquid we are consuming (whether via chug, shot, sip, or pull). Seeing as I do not care to drink anything aside from coffee, water, and alcohol, and “sustainable” coffee has already been beaten to death, I chose to write about alcohol, more specifically, the United State’s up-and-coming sustainable brewing movement.

I aim to write three short comic and environmentally analytical pieces; the first one being on the big guys vs. microbreweries and the importance to local and organic beer, the second on microbreweries’ environmental impact, and for the third portion, I aim to focus specifically on Northfield, Minnesota’s home brewing movement, including that of my own experience. With the help of St. Olaf’s Randy Clay, Board Manager of Bon Appetit, I will brew my own beer with all local and organic ingredients from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and videotape the process for those interested in replicating it.

Beer is more than a good taste to me. It is a social connection, and through this social state-of-beering I have created a connection to family, history, and geography. Now it is time to further this connection to that of the environment.

Green Beer From a Consumer’s Perspective

So, you like drinking beer? Maybe not…maybe you are just another depressed and hopeless hippie graduating college with an Environmental Studies major, whatever. No matter the incentive, do not kid yourself: everyone likes beer. And if they do not it is because they are a child, and children should not consume it anyway. Now, that I know I am talking to my fellow beer drinkers, let’s be real, should we really continue to fund a multi-billion dollar industry that is environmentally destructive? Just like any other dick-head commodity based, economically driven, and monopolizing industry (yeah, I’m talking about you, oil and corn), our favored major beer producers are not at one with the motherland.

Mass produced beer, like Coors, Budweiser, Miller, and PBR, tastes like piss, but apart from that snobbish opinion…fact (I do not care what you think), it also tends to be unsustainable. Why? Much like the chemical composition of your piss, large-scale hops and barley production requires use of Urea – a nitrogen rich organic compound – in the form of a fertilizer for their already unsustainable monocultures. Keeping my audience in mind, do I even need to mention the words “agricultural runoff?” I should start a new pro-organic beer slogan, “Craft beer, saving one salmon dinner at a time!” or, “Miller Lite – Fish don’t like the taste of my piss, but you do!” Apart from the big business’ raw material production, there are large amounts of water, additives, waste, and packaging that are being used to brew the beer. It looks like their dirty little secret is no longer so secret. In fact, it has long been ripped open and is now not so warmly trickling down my leg.

What can we, tree huggers and beer chuggers/sippers of Amurrica do to support a better beer? For one thing, we can drink organic – which should be a no brainer for you granola kids. Organic beer was just reintroduced to the commercial industry in the late Twentieth Century, so our support in purchasing it is wicked pertinent; increased sales show a desire, taste, and preference for the USDA Organic Certified label, which in turn, hopefully shows an increase in production of organic beer. We need to realize, as a consumer, we have had the power taken away from us, and it is about damn time we got it back. It is important to mention that while supporting organic labeling is a step forward, this is only the first step in tailoring the market to our needs and desires as a true AMURRICAN.

Maybe now you are wondering where one can find these organic breweries? Well, just hang on for two more minutes  (or five, depending on your reading speed). Dozens of organic breweries have opened both in the U.S. and abroad (Germany has over 30 of them), but there are many more non-organic breweries that offer an organic selection. Organic beer has even caught the attention of the mega-brewery Anheuser-Busch, which began production of an organic line in 2006 (not that it is any good). This leads me to my second crunchy point: just because a beer, or anything, is certified organic, does not make it a “natural” go-to purchase. Aside from the beer’s ingredients and the product’s taste, it is all about location. Unless you have purposefully been living under a rock – much like Patrick from SpongeBob – you have heard of the “Buy Local!” movement, and therefore, I do not need to preach, brother. My advice is that if you cannot find a good tasting organic brew (heaven forbid), aim for purchasing a good tasting local micro-brew.

What is a microbrewery? Clearly, there are still some children left in my audience; I guess since I can not legally offer you a sip of my delicious Spotted Cow, I will share with you my hippie bachelor’s degree worth of micro (brewing) knowledge, nevertheless. A microbrewery, or craft brewer, is a limited-production brewery, typically producing specialty beers and often only selling its products locally. If you are still confused about the difference between micro and macro breweries, let me put a liberal spin on it: Apart from the unique taste and locality of a craft brew, it takes a certain dedication – almost an artist’s passion, creativity, and touch, to be a craft brewer. Mega-brewers are soulless corporations exploiting customers who do not know any better. Is that unfair to say? Possibly, but only of these costumers’ stupidity. Maybe they like the taste of piss? I think it is fair to say that if folks knew what they were missing, they would leave the big-boy brewers behind. I mean, did you ever even consider why a cheap mass-produced beer tastes, smells, and feels like weak sauce? I will save you a Google search, and inform you that it is because there is an enormous difference between what goes into a craft brew and their more common cousin. Most craft beers are brewed with only four ingredients – water, barley, yeast, and hops – while a macro brew could contain corn, rice, coloring, and other unknown (to me) junk to keep ingredient costs down. Wow, guess there really is corn in everything. Consider this rant my shallow form of public service.

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Now that I have taken you to the dark side, keep in mind that unfortunately not every microbrewery is organic, and if you do find a local organic brewery (micro or not), inquire the origin of their organic ingredients, as it is plausible that their hops is coming from across the ocean, like New Zealand (…how ironic). You, being the big kid that you are, can decide which is better for the environment, but if you have the option of going both local and organic, hop on board that beer-wagon, mate! Now that I got that pun out of the way, you can find a short list of my top-ten favorite organic beer offering microbreweries, at the end of this article.  

My third and final point: Who does not like to walk into a bar and order an obscure beer? It makes pretentious people feel good about their alcoholic drinking palate. So, if for no other reason than a shitty morale boost, find a microbrew near you, learn what they have to offer, and look cool, if to no one else, at least to yourself. Because clearly, you needed a boost in self confidence. I hope this helps, and let the quest for good beer march on…good green local beer, that is!

 Top Ten Microbreweries Offering Organic Brews

  1. Wolaver’s Organic Brewing (Middlebury, Vermont) offers many 100% fine organic ales

  2. Elliott Bay Brewing Company (West Seattle and Burien, Washington) offers 16 certified organic brews and 1 made with organic ingredients

  3. Asher Brewing Company (Boulder, Colorado) offers at least 8 organic brews

  4. Eel River Brewing Company (Fortuna, California) offers at least 8 organic brews

  5. Peak Organic Brewing Company (Portland, Maine) offers 17 organic brews, 4 of which are of their Local Series

  6. Butte Creek Brewing Company (Ukiah, California) offers 4 organic brews

  7. Lakefront Brewery (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) offers 3 organic brews and 1 Gluten-Free brew

  8. Summit Brewing Company (St. Paul, Minnesota) offers a 100% organic ale as a part of their Unchained Series

  9. Bison Brewing (Berkeley, California) offers 5 organic brews

  10. Fish Brewing Company (Olympia, Washington) offers 8 organic ales
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