The refrigerated beer aisle at this Whole Foods Market is so generous, it spills over into a refrigerated end cap around the corner, and is even bookended with a taproom. This, where America shops for healthy, wholesome and organic foods, is surely where the most comprehensive selection of certified organic craft beer can be found—so let’s start shopping.
After some searching, here it is: California’s Eel River Brewing Co. IPA bears a green and white USDA organic seal on the carton. And—that’s it. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of beers here: Fun, fruity beers, serious, traditional beers, bourbon barrel beers and light session beers. Corona and Coors Light are here. Where are the organic beers? Surely, the health-conscious and environmentally aware customers of this natural grocery store chain, particularly in this Northern California market, must be asking the same question every day.
“Not so much,” says a beer department manager, while pointing out that there are, indeed, a few more organic beers in the end cap—Samuel Smith fruit ales and a porter, which are from England. She says that people tend to shop by brand or style here, and they aren’t as concerned about organic beer as they are about gluten-free beer, which is prominently displayed with six brands.
Fine, so shoppers feel good just stepping in the door of a name-brand organic food chain but take a pass when it comes to purchasing organic—who knew? The selection is only marginally better at locally owned natural foods markets, however. And customers are not asking for more.
“Not as often as I would like,” laments Mandy Reilly, grocery buyer at Community Market in Sebastopol. “But the organic options we have are some of our top-selling varieties, so that speaks to the customer base we have at our store.” Community Market carries organic beer from Eel River and Butte Creek, although distribution for the latter is spotty.
One of the reasons for the limited selection is somewhat circular, Reilly speculates: Unlike other grocery categories, which may display conventional and organic options side-by-side, the beer aisle doesn’t suggest the choice in the first place. “They really don’t think about it,” Reilly says, “because they don’t see an option.”
Consumers are more worried about GMO in their foods, according to Reilly. Thus far, the market for barley hasn’t been lucrative enough for the crop science industry to come up with approved GMO barley.
“It’s definitely something people should be aware of,” says Reilly, “if you’re concerned about where your food comes from. Alcohol is digested by your body more readily than anything else, so you’re getting maximum potency there.”
The struggle for market traction is clearly a frustration for Daniel Del Grande, owner and brewmaster of Bison Brewing in Berkeley. “Consumers in Sonoma, Napa and Marin have been pretty price sensitive,” says Del Grande, who founded the organic brewery in 1997. “Once I get my beer on the shelf, they don’t seem to be willing to be paying for organic beer, so frankly it’s been rotated out because consumers don’t buy it.”
Del Grande sells his lineup (which includes a double Simcoe IPA called Kermit the Hop, a chocolate stout, and a red ale with rye and caraway) in at least eight states, and in Whole Foods in some markets, but other stores looked at the metrics recently—pre-Amazon sale—and decided to bump Bison. Not because they’re unsympathetic, but because they aren’t meeting the metrics.
The irony is that organic beer had a much greater impact on the environment than organic tomatoes, according to the brewer. “If people knew the impact of organic agriculture through organic beer, they wouldn’t pay extra for organic tomatoes; they’d shift all their money to organic beer.”
Besides the health aspects that drive so many consumers’ choices—who ever thinks about the pesticides used to control mites and mildew on hops?—Del Grande points to the environmental and ag system benefits when a household buys 52 six-packs of organic beer per year, creating demand for a farmer to convert 1,800 square feet to organic farming.
The beer itself doesn’t suffer for lack of choices. Del Grande says that today, he’s got plenty of certified organic malts, specialty malts and hops to choose from—like the beer, they just cost more. Should environmentally concerned beer drinkers make the money-to-mouth connection any time soon, says Del Grande, “I can triple my output tomorrow.”
Upcoming Marin County Beer Events
Tiburon Taps Beer Festival
Saturday, September 23, 1-4pm
General: $45; designated driver: $20
Shoreline Park, Tiburon
Tam Valley Oktoberfest
Saturday, Sept. 23, 3-9pm
$15/adult; $10/kids (1-10)
Tam Valley Community Center
203 Marin Ave., Mill Valley
Oktoberfest Corte Madera
Saturday, Oct. 14, noon to 5pm
Tasting: $30; general: $10
Kids under 12: Free
Old Corte Madera Square
Tamalpais Dr. & Corte Madera Ave., Corte Madera
Saturday, Oct. 14, 11am to 5pm
Free; sampling: $40
Fair Anselm Plaza, 765 Center Blvd., Fairfax
Saturday, Oct. 21, 5:30-9:30pm
$40 (includes dinner, no-host bar, music)
Greek Orthodox Church, 1110 Highland Dr., Novato