"I don't understand people who say they don't like beer. It's like saying they don't like food," says Abram Goldman-Armstrong, shaking his head slightly. "There are so many different kinds of beer."
Along with Craig Nicholls of Roots Organic Brewing, Goldman-Armstrong, a heavily sideburned 30-year-old beer writer, is co-founder of the North American Organic Brewers Festival (NAOBF). He knows of what he speaks: The festival, which runs this weekend in North Portland's Overlook Park, features 75 different brewskis from all over the world. They range from effervescent pilsners to domineering stouts and even a rowdy malt liquor, but they have one thing in common: They're all organic.
Let's clear up one misconception about organic beer right up front. Just because it's organic, doesn't mean it tastes better.
"If you put two beers in front of me, one organic and one not," Goldman-Armstrong tells me, "I probably couldn't tell the difference."
In fact, taste is not necessarily the point of brewing organically. It's more about being environmentally conscious. (Okay, it's also about getting high on tasty fermentations—but doing it with a smaller carbon footprint.)
Along with the rise in craft brewing, there has been a steady increase in organic beer production in the United States. 30,500 barrels (that's 945,500 gallons) of organic beer were produced in 2007/2008—a 5,500 barrel increase from the previous year's output.
According to Goldman-Armstrong, this output is the result of people thinking more about the energy and chemicals required to grow the huge crops of corn that are a major ingredient in most corporate beer.
"Just because huge factory farms are effective doesn't mean that the farming practices are better," he explains. "Organics are better for farms, the workers, and the environment."
Goldman-Armstrong notes these factory farms are relatively new to beer anyway. He points out that most beer was organic until after WWII, when a surplus of chemical weapons was directed toward farmland as fertilizer and pesticides. When you think about how those chemicals have affected the health of the environment and farm workers, corporate brew begins to look a lot less refreshing.
The organic craft brewers featured at the NAOBF take the sustainable approach to yeasty intoxicants. One participating brewery, Crannóg Ales, aims for zero waste on its small farm in British Columbia. Spent grain from the brewing process is fed to hogs, whose manure fertilizes the organic hops. Chickens roam hop rows to keep pests at bay and water is recycled or used for crops and animals. It's an elegant, environmentally sound, closed-loop system that produces beer like the Back Hand of God stout.
In the five years the festival has been showcasing breweries like Crannóg, it's grown from 20 to 40 participating breweries. This has made it the largest organic brewing festival in the world.
Local favorite Hopworks Urban Brewing will tap their mellow IPA and deeply flavorful Survival Stout for the festival. The demand for Hopworks selections at last year's festival meant that their kegs were the first to run dry.
Hopworks master brewer Christian Ettinger considers organic brewing the obvious choice and a great way to start talking about the environment. "Agriculturally we are in dire straights in the amount of petro-chemicals on the land," he says. "So we need to grow demand for sustainability."
He believes places like his SE Powell brewpub and the NAOBF offer social environments to help demand grow. Because when people start talking to each other about their concerns over a couple of pints, one concern is likely to be what they're putting in their bodies.
But there's more than just promoting organic brewers—the festival itself is environmentally sound. It's powered by a biodesiel generator, the tasting cups and cutlery are biodegradable, and there are discounts for attendees who take public transportation to Overlook Park. Also, some proceeds from the festival go to charities like the Oregon Food Bank and Oregon Tilth, which helps certify and promote organic farmers.
Still, Goldman-Armstrong claims it's mostly about the brew, or as he puts it, "great beer that just happens to be organic." He's also certain there is a beer out there for everyone. If you pace yourself, eat something, and drink plenty of water, it can probably be found at the NAOBF. Or you can just go to get drunk. Either way, in Mother Nature's eyes, you're off the hook for a few beer-soaked hours.