Compare a bottle of Pisgah Pale Ale from February with one from April, and you'll notice a difference on the label. A small green circle is absent from the latter. As of the end of March, Pisgah Brewing does not produce organic beer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The difference is only in the bottle, not in the beer, explains owner David Quinn. “We're not changing anything that we do,” he says. “Pisgah has never used certified organic hops.”
In 2007, the USDA agreed that brewers could use the organic seal even if their hops were conventional, because organic varieties were scarce. But at the start of this year, that rule expired.
Still, certified organic hops are much harder to come by than their conventional counterparts. The American Organic Hop Growers Association has seven members who produced 218,000 pounds of organic hops in 2012, according to their November market report. By contrast, the total U.S. inventory of hop stocks in September was 96 million pounds, according to the USDA.
By those numbers, organic hops account for less than half of a percent of the domestic industry.
“We'll still be able to say ‘made with organic malts,’” Quinn says. “We're just dropping the [USDA] symbol and changing the logo.”
The good news is that organic-hop production is on the rise. The American Organic Hop Growers produced 300 percent more in 2012 than in 2011. Blue Ridge Hops of Marshall is among those growers, and Pisgah is one of its biggest customers. The brewery purchases fresh hops for seasonal beers, including last year's Wet Hop Rye.
Blue Ridge Hops sells to a very specific market, explains co-owner Rita Pelczar. “We're not growing enough that we could supply anybody year-round,” she says. “Our niche is wet hops because hops are so fragile, it's very difficult to get hops fresh from the Pacific Northwest, where the bulk of hops are grown in this country.”
For much smaller brewing operations — homebrewers, that is — Blue Ridge Hops sells dried hops in 1-ounce, vacuum-sealed bags on their website, blueridgehops.com.