The growth of organic beers

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Organic beers are finding their way to a growing number of bars as consumers become wary of artificial ingredients. David Flockhart reports.The...

Organic beers are finding their way to a growing number of bars as consumers become wary of artificial ingredients. David Flockhart reports.

The origins and quality of the food and drink that goes down our throats has never been more important in the minds of British consumers. The major food disease crises of the last couple of years have turned us all into food detectives and we are now demanding to know the name of the lamb whose leg we have just marinated and which is now basking in the low light of our Italian wood-burning oven.

The cry of "let's go organic" is not now just the preserve of your average Guardian reader anymore. BSE, then GM crops and currently foot-and-mouth have jolted us out of our supermarket influenced, cheap food purchasing complacency, into directing our retail energies towards a more selective and enquiring mind-set when it comes to procuring and preparing our daily nosh.

Farmers' markets are springing up all over the place with great success, with organic produce to the fore. Of course the supermarkets have jumped on board also, offering organic meat and vegetables, albeit at a staggering price premium over the usual bog standard, intensively reared or grown produce.

But what do you drink with your gorgeous, flavoursome little organic lambie that has been raised in a Suffolk salt-marsh (a bog to the rest of us) on a diet of sea and gale-swept grasses?

The wine industry's organic offerings have improved immeasurably with the New World once again showing the French a clean pair of heels, with the likes of Penfolds and Bonterra leading the way initially.

But what about the beer boys, have they caught up with our new found fervour for all things green and good? In a word, yes!

The first stirrings for organic beers began, in this country at least, 10 years ago, with the ever-excellent Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, producing arguably the first drinkable organic ale in the UK. Golden Promise was its name and it still is.

I encountered this lovely ale during one my first forays into the speciality beer market, when I struck a deal with the Caledonian Brewery to take our Belgian beers to Edinburgh and we would try to punt their beers into the London market. The problem was that Belgian beers had a cultish, enthusiastic, ready made audience in Edinburgh in the early 1990s, but London was not ready...ooh noo! not for organic Scottish beer.

It lay in the warehouse rapidly going out of date, while our only markets for Golden Promise were the low volume health food delis that were starting to spring up. Not one London bar took to our new-found organic friend, but it was 1990 and we knew that, in time, others would waken up to the huge potential that was only a few years away, to make the organic beer market a viable and sustainable new sector.

It appears that the time has arrived, with terrific organic beers appearing from countless European and British brewers. More importantly, these are readily available to the bar sector from your local speciality beer wholesaler.

The overall quality of the new organic beers is excellent, with packaging, which if not quite on the cutting edge of contemporary, could be described as "modern classic" which would sit quite comfortably in the fridges of many design-led outlets that offer some organic dishes and possibly organic wines.

A prime example of a modern organic outlet is the award-winning Duke of Cambridge in London, which is recognised as the world's first "certified" organic pub and winner of the Time Out Best Pub Award 2000.

There is no spit and sawdust here, fine organic wines and superb modern, organic food indicate that the organic movement has come of age and that this style of operation could be the template for the new organic bar/restaurant movement of the early 2000s.

Food and wines apart, the Duke's beer offering is chosen with equal care, with quality and drinkability the key. Sometimes both of these criteria are mutually exclusive, witness some the artisanal Belgian farm beers, expertly made, yes, but eye wateringly undrinkable to all but the enthusiast.

The Duke's beers range from the excellent Freedom Organic Lager (Britain's first organic lager), Eco Warrior and the aforementioned Golden Promise, to the weirdly named house bitter called Singhboulton Best Bitter, which is named after the two female owners and brewed for them down the road at the tiny Pitfield Brewery.

The success has spurred the partners to open two more outlets in London with more on the horizon. This proves that at long last there is a market for all things organic which is unstoppable.

I have searched out some other superb organic beers from around Europe, which pass the taste and style test. Firstly, for lovers of the familiar British labels, seek out the latest organics from Lincolnshire's Bateman's Brewery, its Yella Bella Organic is a seriously moreish, nutty honeyed ale. London's own Fuller's Brewery produces Fuller's Organic Honey Dew Ale made with real organic honey and seriously delicious.

Yorkshire's Sam Smiths also produces two outstanding organics, Sam Smiths Organic Lager (malty with toffee undertones) and Sam Smiths Organic Best Ale (chocolate coming through here).

The Wychwood Brewery produces the quirky "Wychwood Kiwi Organic Ale, while the Scottish brewer, Broughton, produces the mighty Broughton's Organic Border Gold, which tips the scales at six per cent ABV, and deliciously bitter, which is unusual for a Scottish ale.

The Germans and Belgians have had their share of organic beers for years, mostly not readily available in the UK, but the following brands can be sourced from your wholesaler or direct from Vintage Roots (0118 976 1999)

From Germany we have Bucher Organic Pilsener, a full-flavoured lager, which is not heat treated, or pasteurised, again must be drunk fresh, check the best-before dates. From Bavaria, Reidenburger Weisse Wheatbeer, a true Bavarian speciality, fruity, slight cloudy a la Hoegaarden, with a wonderful spicy finish.

Lastly, another Germanic oddity, Cannabia, the "original hemp beer" that is allegedly Home Office approved but I wonder what The Portman Group would make of it.

Belgium produces one outstanding organic beer and my own particular favourite, called Saison Du Pont from the tiny Du Pont Brewery. Described as the Champagne of Beers it again must be drunk fresh, and is golden coloured with a malty, slightly sweet n' sour, and fruity edge. Again it must be drunk fresh. A classic!

Lastly, please try our old favourite, Golden Promise, now repackaged in a clear bottle. Try serving it half-and-half, mixed with draught Guinness, it's brilliant and called Dark Promise. "Sacrilege!" I hear the organic purists cry, but it's a classic combination, introduced to me by a certain Russell Sharpe, the owner of the Caledonian Brewery. If he thinks it's OK, then who are we to argue?

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