According to longstanding tradition, beer is made from four natural ingredients – pure water, barley malt, hops, and yeast. In Germany, the standard is upheld through the purity law (Reinheitsgebot), which prevents brewers using additional or alternative ingredients in any product marketed as a beer. Outside Germany, there are plenty of beers containing mixed cereals, added sugar, flavoring compounds, and chemicals to increase storage capacity, creaminess, and clarity.
Making organic beer
Organic beer is made in the traditional manner, with pure, healthy ingredients. No chemical additives or genetically modified substances are used and the production facilities are routinely inspected to ensure compliance with organic certification requirements. Several decades ago, organic beer was marginalised and restricted to a small number of boutique breweries. Those brewers dedicated to organic production were frequently discouraged by the scarcity and poor quality of the ingredients offered to them.
Despite improved farming techniques and increased supplies, there remains an international shortage of premium organic ingredients. This can be attributed to the rapid expansion of consumer and market demand for organic beer, a trend which has encouraged several of the world’s major brewers to develop their own products. In choosing to purchase organic as opposed to conventional beer, most consumers are influenced by the environmental benefits of a sustainable agriculture in addition to the superior quality and taste of these products.
Like most manufactured beverages, the quality of beer is dependent on the integrity of raw ingredients and the production procedures employed. The process commences with whole grain barley which is converted to the malt used for brewing beer. Barley was one of the first grains to be cultivated and was the predominant food grain in medieval Europe until progressively replaced by its close relative, wheat, during the sixteenth century. Baere was its archaic English name, indicating the likely derivation for the word beer. Today, barley is still grown in significant volumes primarily as stock feed but also for use in wholegrain breads, as a table grain, and for beer and whiskey manufacturing.
The preferred varieties of barley are grown for their distinctive flavour characteristics. From the brewer’s perspective, an essential quality of barley grains is their ability to transform complex starches into malt sugars during germination. Damage caused by insect or disease infestation has the potential to interfere with germination, making the grains unsuitable for further processing. This partly explains why some brewers prefer to rely on conventionally grown barley which is routinely fumigated with insecticidal treatments. Another reason is the plentiful supply and lower cost of conventionally grown barley. One of the disadvantages of conventional barley can be elevated nitrogen levels caused by the application of chemical fertilisers. When the nitrogen content of barley is too high, the character of the finished beer is often compromised by a cloudy haze and lifeless palate.
To encourage germination, barley grains are soaked in running water until softened then laid out and carefully raked every few hours for several days. Conventional maltsters may add alkaline chemicals like hydrogen peroxide to increase the germination rate.
When the grains are sufficiently germinated, they are roasted in kilns. The roasting temperature and kiln process will determine the characteristics of the malt. Roasted at high temperatures, the dark malts provide rich colour and flavours, particularly for the darker ales, and stouts. For most beer varieties it is the pale malts which are required in large volumes. Roasted at lower temperatures, pale malts contain higher percentages of the natural enzymes which enable the remaining starch to be converted into maltose, a highly fermentable type of sugar.
Once the malt has been milled, it is blended with hot water to create a porridge like mash. While traditional brewers depend upon natural enzymes in the malt, commercial products are often enhanced by the addition of yeast strains which increase conversion of starch to sugars. Among conventional brewing interests, there has been controversy surrounding the use of genetically modified strains. Beers with an organic certification are not permitted to use genetically modified strains of yeast.
When the starches are sufficiently converted, the malt is filtered to remove solid particles, which can be dried and sold as an ingredient for stock food. The sugary liquid remaining is called wort. This is then heated in a brewing vat along with hops, which are required for their distinctive bitterness and aromatic complexity.
The strength and flavour of hops are most influential in traditional brewing and largely determine the quality of the finished beer. Many varieties are susceptible to insect attack, mildew and fungal problems. This makes them challenging to grow without chemicals. Conventional growers routinely spray their plants with organo-phosphate pesticides, chemical fungicides, and their soils are likely to be exposed to nitrate fertiliser and weedkiller.
Rather than applying these chemicals, organic growers attempt to control problems with a combination of low impact strategies. These can include companion plantings, routine inspections, physical maintenance, and the use of safe materials such as soapy water, and white oil. The best protection against nuisance insects is to select an unaffected growing region. The relative isolation of New Zealand, for example, has prevented hop aphids from establishing and compromising the local hops industry.
Despite the enthusiasm and dedication of organic producers, they are overshadowed by the conventional industry and frequently struggle to maintain their economic viability. When attempting to obtain organically grown hops for their products, organic brewers are frequently disappointed by inconsistent supplies, and the small number of varieties available to them. The finest organic hops are currently grown in New Zealand, Germany, and Belgium.
After cooling, the hopped wort is fermented with the assistance of active yeast strains. On average, it takes around one week to convert most of the malt sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The remaining sugars provide roundness and clarity to the beer. Some beers are conditioned with a charcoal filter to remove impurities. Commercial beers are usually pasteurised before being bottled or sealed inside barrel kegs.
Boutique products brewed for the connoisseur may be packaged with additional hops, sugar, and active yeast. This enables continued fermentation and increases the beers flavour and alcohol content. All of these processes are compatible with an organic approach to brewing. Next time you enjoy a refreshing glass of beer, reflect upon the importance of supporting a healthy, sustainable industry. Cheers.