Organic beer production has boomed on the back of drinkers'

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There has been a lot of scepticism about organic beers. Are they just niche products? Are they simply a current trend for trendies living in the...

There has been a lot of scepticism about organic beers.

Are they just niche products?

Are they simply a current trend for trendies living in the south?

Are they too overpriced to be a serious contender to mainstream beer brands?

Or are they here for the long term?

According to those in the know, the respective answers to these questions are: no, no, no and yes.

If anyone has any lingering doubts about the future of organic beers, they should look no further than Fuller's.

The London brewer produced Honey Dew in non-organic form for a number of years before going organic.

That was a couple of years ago and sales have subsequently rocketed to such an extent that it is the fastest-growing organic beer in the country.

It is now Fuller's second-best selling beer and only beaten by its flagship brand London Pride.

Honey Dew, which uses honey imported from Argentina, is available in both draught, with an abv of 4.3%, and bottles, with an abv of 5%.

Lincolnshire-based Batemans is another brewer that has found its organic beer, Yella Belly, has built up a loyal drinkership.

The 4.2% abv ale was produced as a one-off, but demand converted it to a regular offering.

Such has been the growth in organic brews that there are reckoned to be 59 Brit-ish beers that meet the accreditation requirements of the Soil Asso-ciation, which checks that only truly organic ingredients are used.

Britain is also reckoned to be the world's major producer of organic beer with a clear lead over the likes of France, which has 32 brews, Germany (14), the USA (11), and Belgium (3).

Beer writer Roger Protz, who penned The Organic Beer Guide, reports: "In the past couple of years, organic beer production has boomed as brewers have responded to drinkers' demands and their concerns for food and drink made without the use of agricultural chemicals."

Two weeks ago, the growing demand for organic produce was recognised in the Organic Food Awards, sponsored by the Soil Association.

For St Peter's, the Bungay, Suffolk brewer, it was a case of a double celebration ­ its Organic Ale won the best organic beer award and its Organic Best Bitter was highly commended.

Head brewer Mark Slater says the brewery recognised the potential of organic beers some five years ago.

"Now, organic beers comprise 30% of our production and we export them all over the world.

They are not the easiest beers to brew but the end result justifies the effort."

St Peter's chairman John Murphy says that sourcing organic hops and barley in the first place was "a real pain ­ there was very little around".

The brewery's hops come from New Zealand but it took several months before the Soil Association over here was satisfied that the hops met its accreditation standards.

As for securing a supplier for the barley malt, Murphy recalls: "We got in early and the beer was well received but then other bigger brewers came along and used their buying muscle to try to nudge us out."

The argument that because it's organic means it is automatically more expensive, especially when importing New Zealand Hallertauer hops halfway across the globe, doesn't wash with Murphy.

"It is only a few percent of our overall costs and only adds a penny or two on to a bottle.

The bottles, labels and electricity costs are all the same whether youare brewing an organic or non-organic beer.

I think there is a fair bit of ripping off going on."

The problems with brewing organic beers are twofold, according to Murphy.

"The first problem is the raw materials are more variable, but the major problem is the ingredients are different from regular products.

The malts tend to be stunted [in growth] although they have the same protein content."

This means that on a weight-for-weight basis, the organic malts contain more protein and this manifests itself by clogging upthe filters during the filtration process.

"A lot of things are different and you learn the skills as you go along.

When we're brewing an organic ale, our head brewer [Mark Slater] walks around with a more furrowed brow."

He adds: "Organics are becoming more popular and they are no longer looked upon as freaky, fringe or wacky.

Even the Americans are turning to organic beers.

Eighteen months ago, there was zero interest, now they have suddenly gone organic mad."

This spells good news for St Peter's because exports account for half of its production, with the USA being the largest exportmarket.

"We are now exporting a lot of organic beers to the States," says Murphy.

The growth in organic sales has had a substantial impact on St Peter's business plans.

In July, it completed a doubling in size of its brewing capacity and commissioned a high-speed bottling line.

The capacity of the bottling line now exceeds brewing output

so St Peter's is planning a further increase of 50% in brewing capacity and Murphy hopes the work will be completed by Christmas.

The accolade of brewing Britain's first organic to go into continuous production is held by the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh with Golden Promise.

"Caley" has, on occasions, brewed an organic lager but this hasn't fitted in well with its core brands, comments marketing director David Brown.

He explains: "Basically, we are an ale brewery."

Golden Promise is available in bottles at 5% abv and on draught at 4.4% abv.

Caley is reviewing how to progress Golden Promise and Brown says there may be a case for brewing draught with a higher abv to make it more compatible with its bottled stablemate.

However Brown is cautious about the future, explaining: "The organic side hasn't performed startling well for us and growth has been slow in the sector.

It seems companies that specialise in organic beers have been more successful."

Like St Peters and a number of UK organic brewers, Caley uses New Zealand Hallertauer hops.

This prompts Caley's marketing director to observe: "Organic beers are much of a muchness in that they all tend to use the same ingredients.

The challenge is finding dif-ferent sources for the ingredients so that the beer has a point of difference and doesn't end up tasting the same as all the others."

The difficulty of finding alternative sources, and ones that can supply organic products in sufficient quantities, is underlined by Rupert Ponsonby of the Hop Growers Association.

Although there are organic hops available from Germany, Belgium, New Zealand and Kent, he remarks: "There is not a broad enough range of hops to go around.

There is not a range of flavours and there have to be doubts about the consistency of organic hops."

It has also been a bad time for Peter Hall, who has pioneered organic hop growing in Kent.

Ponsonby says: "It's not good at all.

He has had a poor yield and has had problems with disease.

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