Dan Del Grande has two years to transition from 95-percent organic ingredients in his beers to a clean 100. It's not as easy as it sounds. When Del Grande bought Bison Brewing Company (2030 Fifth St., Berkeley) in 1997, such a goal hadn't yet crossed his mind. It wasn't until 2001, he said, that he even began organic brewing, encouraged to do so as organic German hops began to appear in the United States. "And by 2003," Del Grande recalls, "I could make pretty much any beer I wanted with organic ingredients."
Today he brews a line of nearly a dozen beers, all stamped with the USDA Organic seal. This badge of honor decrees that a product is made with 95-percent organic ingredients by weight. In beer, the ingredients (excluding water) are so dominated by malt that, to achieve the required threshold, a brewer may altogether disregard using organic hops — which usually constitute just two or three percent of a beer's ingredient mass.
But the current five-percent allowance will terminate on January 1, 2013, after which all organic beers will be required to contain only organic hops. For brewers, this could mean trouble, as the supply of organic hops may not meet the rise in demand that's expected to occur. If a 100-percent organic ingredient requirement were to be implemented today, there would not be enough organic hops to go around. Whether that will change in two years is uncertain. Only five of thirty common hop varieties are available organically, according to Del Grande, and in Washington's Yakima Valley, just one-third of one percent of the region's hop acreage — 30,000 acres in all — are organic, he said. Moreover, organic produce must be grown on land that has been farmed organically for at least three years, and if hop growers are to convert to organic to supply the needs of organic craft brewers, they have less than two years to make the switch — meaning that for at least a year while their growers transition, some brewers may have to temporarily drop their organic status. Del Grande intends to keep his, and is now developing an online forum (he's calling it a "hopoperative") where brewers and growers can form a clear line of communication and assure consistent availability of organic hops.
Bison Brewing's year-round staple brews include a chocolate stout, IPA, Belgian ale, and barleywine. They've all survived the test of time, but Del Grande concedes that organic beer is not about enhanced flavors or consumer health — as it may be in, say, organic strawberries. Rather, organic brewing is about farming sustainably, protecting the environment, and ensuring stable soils and clean rivers. It's also, unfortunately, going to mean a fight for ingredients. Come 2013, we'll see which brewers get their hops.