On the Scene: Good, clean beer

sceneblogbwNeon pink wrist-banded beer lovers teetered around North Portland’s Overlook Park this weekend for the 6th annual North American Organic Brewer Festival. It wasn’t just about booze and frivolity; the organic beer market has more than doubled over five years.

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Neon pink wrist-banded beer lovers teetered around North Portland’s Overlook Park this weekend for the 6th annual North American Organic Brewer Festival.

One Californian beer was supposed to taste like bacon, but didn’t, and lots of beers tasted like, well, beer (or sort of like peaches, or sort of like coffee). The nation’s first organic certified brewery, Eel River Brewing Company of Fortuna, California, brought an acai berry beer to the festival that tasted like Sour Patch Kids. Roots Organic Brewing Company is Oregon’s first certified organic brewery and host of this merry event. On a whole the beers were delicious and the music was awful. But the party at the park was about more than just boozing; the organic beer market is growing quickly.

Matt Speckenbach of Hopworks

“Organic goes with our whole philosophy: energy efficient, bike friendly and organic comes with that. When you look around you can see it’s a trend that’s picking up,” says Matt Speckenbach, assistant brewer at Hopworks Urban Brewery.

In 2009 $41 million in organic beers sold nationally, up $22 million since 2005. Organic beers are more expensive for the consumer, but this increased price does not fully cover production costs. Currently profit margins for organic beers are leaner, according to Jim Solberg, co-owner of Indie Hops, a Portland company that recently built Oregon’s first hops pellet mill.

Some breweries cut down on costs by not using all organic ingredients. An organic beer is composed of 95% organic ingredients, not including water and salt that can’t be classified.  Hops are the only allowed non-organic component, making up that 5%. This is for good reason since organic hops are the most expensive ingredient to grow and buy: an interesting quirk for an organic product. Hopworks rarely uses organic hops for this reason.

On average organic hops are about twice as expensive because the labor and organic sprays cost about double.

Brewing organically is no small investment. Larger breweries at the festival like New Belgium, Widmer, and Deschutes create a few organic beers, but brew largely non-organic beers. Even though the profit margins for organic are smaller, big companies get good publicity for supporting a sustainable practice.

Over three days 20,500 filled the park (up from 15,000 last year) to sample from 35 venders, 21 from Oregon. Cars were discouraged and helmets encouraged. A cornstarch biodegradable taster cup cost $6 ($1 off with a MAX ticket, proof of bike parking, or three cans of food). The festival benefited the Leukemia Lymphoma Society and the Oregon Food Bank.

Even with the high costs and lower profit margins the mob at the park showed that at least in the Northwest “beeries” are willing to support the cause. “We are still crunching numbers and paying all the bills, so we won’t know about profits for a few days, but we can safely say it was a big success,” said Chris Crabb, Roots Organic Brewing Company brewer. (Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, the festival’s success was not enough to keep Roots Organic in business. See the update below.)

Josey Bartlett is an associate writer for Oregon Business.

UPDATE, JULY 14: Roots Organic Brewing, forefather of the North American Organic Brew Fest, shut its doors Monday night, July 12. Portland beer fans were shocked, but those who have gone there in recent weeks knew something was up when beers sold for a mere dollar. One reporter described the atmosphere as “very bro, lots of guys with flip flops.” That’s a stark contrast to Portland’s family-friendly pubs filled with babies, bikers (the cycling variety), Reedies, and friends and families of every age.

The organic beer industry continues to grow by millions of dollars. One problem for Roots is that it recently lost its outside vendors, which comprised 60% of its income. The pub also tried to sell before it went out of business, but no one signed the deal. And although Roots has closed its doors the festival will continue to live. See you there next year.  JB