Finding organic beer in Madison can be quite a scavenger hunt. Visit a liquor store and you'll find only a handful of breweries from across the country committed to using organic ingredients - and to putting in the extra effort and investment.
Why so few choices? For one thing, finding organic hops can be difficult. The tiny blossoms provide the bitterness in beer's taste and aroma, and major malting companies, like Briess of Chilton, Wis., are responding to increasing demand for organic malts.
However, "there just aren't many organic hops," says Luther Paul, head brewer for Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery, whose Extra Special Bitter is the state's only certified organic beer. "We are looking into contracting with local growers over the next several years."
Lakefront's ESB is a deep, clear, copper beer with a soft tan head, floral aroma and complex flavors that blend malty sweetness with dry hoppiness. It is a very nice beer, but in a comparison with a well-known, non-organic ESB like that of Seattle's Red Hook, it's a bit tame.
To receive the United States Department of Agriculture's organic certification, Lakefront had to demonstrate to a government-approved inspector that at least 95% of the ESB's raw ingredients - hops, malt, yeast - were produced without synthetic chemicals or bioengineering. To be certified, breweries also must keep organic beers separate from non-organics, and they must thoroughly clean brewing equipment before they switch it from non-organic to organic.
Brewer Eric Brusewitz of the Great Dane says organic beers are simply more expensive to make. "Finding the right organic malts and hops needed for specific styles can add 40% to the cost of producing that pint of beer," he notes. The Great Dane does not currently make an organic beer, but early in the brewpub's days it made its Landmark Gold with organic malt.
Nationally, numerous breweries produce organic beers. You can find the best selection at Steve's Liquor, Star Liquor, Riley's Wines of the World and Whole Foods. The beers' prices are comparable to the average non-organic craft beer, ranging from $7 to $8.50 a six-pack.
Some of the easiest-to-find organic beers come from Wolaver's of Middlebury, Vt., with four standard styles that include a brown ale, a pale ale, an India pale ale and, for summer, a light-bodied Belgian wit. Each is a respectable rendition of its style, and the brown has a nice body and smooth caramel maltiness that pairs well with most any dinner entrée. The non-organic brews of this company are marketed as Otter Creek products.
Butte Creek (Chico, Calif.) also makes four different organic beer styles. The pilsner is straw colored and light in body and flavor. The porter is full of the rich, chocolate malt that one expects from any good porter. The IPA has a firm, hoppy aroma and lingering bitterness, but lacks body. My pick of the Butte Creek lot is called, simply, Organic Ale. It has a clear copper body, soft texture and lingering dryness.
Whole Foods has gotten into organic beers by contracting with brewers like North Coast Brewery (Fort Bragg, Calif.) to make Cru D'or. It's a great Belgian strong ale with a yeasty nose and a fruity body. It's sweet on the palate, with hints of apple and banana. North Coast also offers the mahogany-hued Old Plowshare Stout, which has lots of coffee-like flavors.
In addition, Whole Foods carries Lamar Street Pale Ale, an organic American pale ale made by Chicago-based Goose Island Beer Company. It's copper colored, with a soft texture that smoothes out the bitter tones. For those familiar with the hoppiness of Goose Island's Honker's Ale, an English bitter, Lamar Street will seem a little conservative.
Fish Tale Ales (Olympia, Wash.) makes amber ale, India pale ale and Wild Salmon pale ale as certified organic. Locally, the pale ale is a little easier to find. The company burnishes its green image with regular contributions to salmon restoration in the Pacific Northwest.
Looking for a European organic? From the United Kingdom, Samuel Smith's organic lager is a well-balanced beer. Nothing too special, but if you are looking for an import, it's not a bad choice.
Finally, you know that organic beers are becoming more mainstream when big brewers like Anheuser-Busch enter the fray. The beer giant markets the certified-organic beers of Green Valley Breweries, but Green Valley's Stone Mill pale ale and Wild Hop IPA tend to be a little tame for beer-style aficionados.