I’ve been thinking about beer much more than usual the last few months. One reason, I started making some in my living room in April. For another, my coworker Stacey gave up imported beers (not a small ask for a Guinness lover) as a means of reducing her carbon footprint. Then just recently, New Belgium Brewery started shipping the much beloved Fat Tire and a couple of other brews to Minnesota from their shop in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Not only is Fat Tire a beer that I have a long history with from trips back to the Motherland (not to mention its growing national reputation), but New Belgium – an employee owned brewery – has a notable commitment to the environment. They’ve been buying wind power for almost a decade, they did a lot of smart things in building their new facilities, and they’re active in protecting their local watershed. Lovely work really, and they’ve grown to be the third largest “craft” brewer in the country (behind Boston brewing and Sierra Nevada). But they are also almost a 1,000 miles away and shipping water out of an arid land.
So, I am finding myself in a modified version of the stereotypical food “local versus organic” debate. Here are some pro and cons of some of the options, as I see it:
There are some very tasty beers made in Minnesota and they tend to be the ones I look for first. Given my commitment to this blog, I’ve been looking around local breweries’ websites this afternoon and it is a bit difficult to find out where most of the ingredients come from. I can say that at least Great Waters Brewery has an organic seasonal Wit and that Surly uses some amount of malt from Rahr Malting in Shakopee, which gets some of its goods from Minnesota and North Dakota farmers (and is trying to do some good bioenergy stuff), along with imported malts. I am under the impression that it is somewhat difficult to grow organic barley in this region, but I don’t know that for sure and most brewers pride themselves on using hops from far away.
One exception I just stumbled across is the Pearl Street Brewery in LaCrosse, which says it uses local hops and “healthy” amounts of Wisconsin malts. It doesn’t look like it gets distributed out of the town though, so I guess I won’t be trying it anytime soon.
The biggest advantage that I see for the local breweries is that they don’t have to ship their products very far and since water – the main ingredient – is a heavy thing to ship, that does help out. Local beer makers can be found here.
I’m apparently not the first to wonder about this topic. Serendipitously the other day I came across the Beer Activist, who wrote a book about beer, Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World. The book’s website has links to organic breweries.
I’m willing to guess that you are already familiar with many of the benefits of organic farming, so I won’t get into them. According to the previous link though, the closest brewer on that list (other than the La Crosse folks that don’t seem to sell here) is Lakefront in Milwaukee, which has an organic ESB. I think it is a tasty beer, but again this would involve shipping water – water from the Great Lakes no less – all the way here.
Bringing it home doesn’t really solve the local versus organic debate. I’ve made two batches of beer in my living room. I think they are pretty tasty (which may be something like a parent thinking their kid is cute no matter how ugly it really is), but they aren’t organic. My local brew shop has just recently begun selling some organic malt and hops, but at least some of that is imported (like many beer ingredients: coming from Europe). Apparently, there is only one type of organic malt available, but when mixed with other organic grains you can get a decent variety of beers. There is a shop out of California, associated with the aforementioned Beer Activist, that specializes in organic home beer brewing.
As an aside for home brewers, the California shop is sponsoring an organic homebrew competition. Top prize involves the use of an organic brewery.
What’s a boy to do?
I’d be interested in knowing what others think on this. I’m not sure quite how to balance supporting the local brewers v. organic/green brewers. It is a shame that we have to choose between the two really.
I rather enjoy brewing beer at home though, so I expect to do that more once the temperatures in my apartment get back down to a level that won’t mess with the process of it all. I planted a hop root in my community garden this spring, so with a little luck I will at least have that to use and know it comes chemical free. In the mean time, I’ll have to study up on the malt side of it all.
One local food that I know is readily abundant these days are raspberries growing in our state parks, as I had a happy 4th spent picking. Hope you can get the opportunity to get out and pick some too.