What's brewing? The rise of organic beer

The UK’s organic brewers are calling time on beer corporations, as Rachel Clode discovers

Picture a summer’s day, the horizon undulating in the haze of the heat as you raise a pint of refreshing pesticides to your lips. Cheers. Yes, pesticides. In a bottle, in a glass. That’s beer – or at least that’s probably part of your beer if you are drinking many of the commercial, mass-produced liquids born of chemical agribusiness.

Beer, lager and ale are made by extracting sugars from barley malt and other cereals. The sweet liquid this produces is then fermented with yeast, which converts the sugars into alcohol. A 2002 report published by the British Beer and Pubs Association and Brewing Research International, showed 23 organofluorine pesticides approved for use on malting barley in the UK. One of these is the fungicide quinoxyfen, which, when tested in the 1990s in varied dosages on beagles, mice, rats and rabbits produced, among other side effects, increased cholesterol, kidney and liver weights, loss of appetite and anaemia. The Pesticides Safety Directorate’s 2004 report into pesticide residues in beer found traces of 30 different pesticides across 45 samples.

Aside from the potential of swigging a chemical or two, mass-produced beer just doesn’t taste as good as the traditional and organic beers now being brewed in the UK. Less than a decade ago, however, the independent brewing industry in the UK was seriously under threat from mass-producing beer giants. In 1998, four brewers dominated the market, with an 83 per cent share between them, but since the introduction in 2002 of the Progressive Beer Duty, which brought about tax relief for small breweries, microbrewing is now expanding, with independent and organic brewers across the UK at the forefront of the British beer revolution. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, has already increased the price of a pint by 4p, taking the tax for a pint to 73p. With his pledge to raise alcohol duty by two per cent above infl ation for the next four years, demands for the highest quality and best taste are firmly in the hands of discerning punters and they are not going to compromise – though few realise just what goes into that pint or bottle.

Cracking good organic malt

The finest barley is low in nitrogen; too much produces a hazy effect. Organic farming lessens nitrogen, producing a higher-quality malt than agribusiness malts. Barley begins transition to malt in maltings, where grain is washed or ‘steeped’ in tanks with water for around 60 hours. The wet grain is then raked over four or fi ve days and begins to germinate. The grain cannot fully germinate or it will begin to consume its own sugars. The brewer checks that the malt is soft by tasting it. Heating the malt for 48 hours stops the germination process. The paler the malt, the higher the enzymes; the darker malts, such as chocolate, used for stout, are heated at higher temperatures.

The malt is cracked in a mill, mixed with water in a mash tun then the recipe is refined by adding darker malts, according to the type of beer. After standing in the tun, where the starch converts to sugar, the brew is sampled, before hot water is added to kill the enzymes. The wort, a sugary liquid it produces, is run off and the grain sprayed with water. The wort is then boiled and hops added at the start, halfway through and close to the end of the process, after boiling for an hour or more. The caramelised malt sugars provide the beer’s colour and body. After cooling, yeast is added to the hopped wort, fermenting until most of the sugar has turned to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation takes around seven days, when the beer is then left to stand for a few days before running into bottles or kegs.

Small and mighty UK hops

Hops are particularly prone to fungal infection, exacerbated by the UK climate, making them a high-risk crop. ‘There are very few organic hops producers in the UK and most of the crops are pre-purchased through large organisations,’ says Greg Pilley, head brewer at the independent Stroud Brewery.

Most organic hops come from New Zealand or Germany, though the price drove Stuart Thomson, of Atlantic Brewery, to grow his own. ‘Organic hops were 100 per cent more expensive, so I got two dwarf varieties – fuggles and fi rst gold – from the National Hop Association and propagated them myself,’ he says. Already an organic farmer, Stuart is the only UK brewer to grow his own organic hops.

Development of other hops – such as the aptly named dwarf variety ‘Boadicea’, cited as the fi rst in the world to incorporate strong natural resistance to the hop aphid – could result in the use of far less pesticides, lowering the cost of farming hops and bringing this crop back to the UK.

Reconnecting communities

Brewing beer is a traditional skill in the UK and one that reconnects communities, especially in rural areas.  In Cornwall, The Organic Brewhouse has revived the local brewing tradition. Andy Hamer mainly brews cask ales – bespoke named beers for Cornish pubs and guest beers for pubs around the UK – as well as bottled beer. Using bore hole water for his brew, Andy believes keeping ingredients simple and sourcing high quality organic raw materials are the only two things needed to make great organic beer.

Other microbrewers have followed, such as Atlantic Brewery, whose organic bottled beers are made from spring water on the Treisaac farm near Newquay, in Cornwall. Stuart Thomson made organic beers and wines before buying a microbrewery, and now supplies organic beer to local restaurants such as Jamie Oliver’s ‘15’ and to bars and pubs around the UK. Independent Stroud Brewery uses local history in the naming of its naturally conditioned and organic brews; the labelling organic brews; the labelling tells stories of mythical highwaymen and reflects the Cotswolds trade history – all of which encourages engagement with the source of the beer and the region, as well as the fl avour. Beer, if it isn’t consumed to excess, is good for you. It’s packed with vitamin B6 and a glass or two in good company puts a smile on your face – knowing your drink is natural and organically produced should keep it there. Back to that summer’s day, leave out the pesticides and say cheers.

Parched? Grab an organic and independent UK bottle or pint here:

Atlantic Brewery, Cornwall Atlantic Gold with ginger gives an enlivened aftertaste. If you like your beer stronger, try Fistral Premium. Stout drinkers should try Atlantic Blue, made with chocolate and coffee malts. See www.atlanticbrewery.com for stockists.

Black Isle Brewery, Scotland From regional Heather Honey to the continental style Blonde, all in recycled glass. Order online at www.blackislebrewery.com • The Organic Brewhouse, Cornwall Mainly cask ales – find pubs and shops at www.theorganicbrewhouse.com

• Stroud Brewery, Gloucestershire Try its Organic brew, naturally conditioned amber bitter Tom Long, named after a mythical highwayman in the Cotswolds, or pale ale Budding, named after Edwin Beard Budding, inventor of the lawnmower. See www.stroudbrewery.co.uk for pubs, or order online for parties.

The Swan, Inkpen, Berkshire 17th-century organic inn, restaurant and shop selling Butts organic beers ‘Traditional’ and ‘Jester’, with one or two others from the Butts range. Bottled organic beer is sold in the shop. See www.theswaninn-organics.co.uk

• The Inspiral Lounge, Camden, London A modern ethical bar with its own jetty by the lockside of Regent’s canal, the ideal place to try the bottled organic Atlantic range or Freedom on draft. See www.inspiralled.net 

• The Duke of Cambridge, Islington, London Organic everything at this renowned pub, which had the first London organic ale made especially for it. They now serve Pitfield, St Peter’s and Freedom on draft, plus a wide range of bottles to drink in a sustainable refurbished conservatory. See www.sloeberry.co.uk/duke.html

Find out more about beer in the UK:
 • The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) www.camra.org.uk
 • The Soil Association www.soilassociation.org
 • The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) www.beerandpub.com
 • The Organic Beer Guide by Roger Protz


This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008

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