What does it mean, and how do I get some?
Few realize that three sustainable breweries call Austin home. These crafters of beer don't make much of a ruckus about doing what they believe is simply the right thing to do. Doing a good thing is an entirely separate ordeal from paying a government agency to certify for everyone else that you're doing it and then hiring a publicist to sing the praises of those deeds. Those extra steps to awareness mean that thirsty Austinites have a problem that is the opposite of greenwashing. You may already be drinking sustainably-made or organic beer and not even realize it.
The secret I will let you in on is this: Consumers can ask for sustainable beer. It exists, and brewers want to make it for you. Sustainability also means different things to different craftsmen in different environments. Here are three unique ways Austin companies are brewing sustainably.
Jester King and the Land
Jester King, the first brewery to be certified organic in Texas, looks like the bucolic place you'd want your organic chickens to enjoy their fated lives. Tucked off a winding road in unincorporated Austin, at the end of an unmarked dirt turnoff, they make farmhouse ales amid Hill Country views.
Bright purple lemon beebalm flowers grow wild on the property, and the guys are drying some to experiment with. (They test with a home brew system.) The three founders – Jeffrey Stuffings, his brother Michael Steffing, and friend Ron Extract, who came from Shelton Brothers distributors – all agreed before they opened the brewery: "We want our beer to be as close to the earth as possible." They even have plans to start organic farming on the property.
"We're not on city water out here," explained Jeffrey. "Our well draws from the Trinity Aquifer which feeds most of the Hill Country. We're trying to have the mineral character of the well water show through the beer to showcase the terroir and the unique environment here." Terroir is a term typically reserved for wine, and certainly not all beers have it.
Most Jester King beers are USDA Certified Organic, or would qualify if they had time to do the paperwork. Nearly all their beers that would not qualify as completely organic still contain over 70% organic ingredients, enough to get the state organic seal. Because the time it takes to barrel age and the time it takes to get labels approved by the TABC are both lengthy and mandatory, they, like many other small businesses, opt not to hold their inventory hostage for the extra step of organic inspection and certification. Das Wunderkind!, for example, uses the identical organic ingredients as Das Überkind, but only Das Überkind has the USDA seal. It also happens that sometimes one batch will go out without the organic seal, but the approval comes in time for another batch of the same beer, which might be the case with El Cedro, the new cedar-aged ale with Brettanomyces yeast.
"For a long time we were using organic rye, but it was certified organic in Europe, not here, so we had to list it as nonorganic," said Ron. Starting last June 2012, the U.S. and EU implemented a mutual recognition treaty, where they have agreed to recognize each others' organic certifications. That has started to ease trade of organic products.
"For me, I've always been less concerned with residual chemicals in the beer than I am with just producing things in a sustainable and responsible way and knowing that the people involved with producing our beer aren't being exposed to harmful chemicals," said Ron. "Organic beer isn't necessarily healthier than nonorganic beer, but it's definitely more responsible."
Independence and the Water
"When we first started the brewery, there weren't really any organic options," said Amy Cartwright about the ingredients available in the mid-2000's. "The industry is catching up."
She co-founded the brewery with her husband Rob Cartwright in 2004, which makes Independence one of the more established breweries in Austin. Amy and Rob and their team of four brewers recently took home a Good Food Award for the second year in a row for their Convict Hill Stout. Stash IPA was nominated this year but did not win. The national prize recognizes excellent tasting and sustainably crafted food and drink. The brewery is also in the research stage to make Independence Pale Ale organic.
"Sustainable business practices matter because we're all living on planet Earth," said Amy. "The bigger a company gets, the more the onus is on you to get better practices." And they are getting bigger. "We did one million bottles of beer in 2012," Rob said, and they're quadrupling the number of production barrels this year.
"For me," said Amy, "our most valuable resource here is water and what do we do to conserve water and reuse it. That's our primary ingredient." Considering that they have an older, highly manual system, they go to great lengths to capture the water from the heat exchanger and reuse it.
"On the malting side, it's more a matter of looking at the practices of the companies we work with." Independence switched maltsters a couple years ago because they found one using all renewable energy in their processing. They don't use pesticides, and "even their bags are compostable."
Drinkers interested in organic beer should also be looking for all-malt beers. Traditional domestic lagers may add corn or rice, which costs less than using all malts. Amy and Rob knew a major Texas brewer didn't use all malts, because "cereal cooker" was literally on the tour map there. Equally in the other direction, "People using malts usually are transparent about the malt they use."
"If I was creating the definition [of organic]," said Amy, "I'd be trying to make sure you're not using synthesized or chemical fining agents." There are chemical versions of the traditional ingredients used to clarify beers, isinglass and gelatin. In fact, non-craft brewers have options for chemically treating their beer at virtually every step, such as de-foaming or carbonation.
After some failed experiments with composting, Independence found a sustainable way to reuse their spent grain. They give it to Calvin Jechow, great-grandfather – he happened to be there to show me the baby's picture – who owns and operates Six J Ranch. He feeds it to his free range chickens, ducks, and turkeys. "Calvin was in organic farming before it was anything," said Amy. "He's someone who's stuck with things his whole life. I grew up on small farm, and it's a lot of work. Plus he's just a nice guy."
Hops & Grain and the People
Hops & Grain reuses their spent grain to make and sell all-natural Brew Biscuit dog treats. Suzy, the golden retriever who calls Hops & Grain founder Josh Hare her best friend, graces the packaging. Hare is well known in running groups around town for his love of Suzy, but people are the center of his sustainability outlook.
Josh probably will never go to the trouble of applying for USDA Organic certification, though his company's beers are made from 100% malt, with no artificial ingredients. However, if there were a seal indicating that a company practices responsible employee relations, he would apply. "We pay on a payscale of a brewery that brews 50 times the volume we produce in a year," said Josh. "I believe that it allows our employees to live a fulfilled life and not have to worry about being able to afford things like healthy food." Employees also get paid a bonus for using alternative transportation to get to work, such as biking or carpooling. Walking counts as an alternative mode of transportation, as all of us with legs should note.
Hare's three pillars of sustainability are environment, community, and craft. I've mentioned their commitment to 1% for the Planet in these pages before, and that commitment is also why they use only cans in their packaging. I arrived after a shipment of empty cans. The shiny cans were stacked up to the height that I imagine a brontosaurus to be, yet each of those pallets had the weight of feathers. Josh wants these beers to come with you on your adventures, and he wants that can back in circulation soon after.
Sustainability, according to the official definition on Hops & Grain's website, is "a means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society, its members and its economies are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals in the very long term." I like that interpretation. What sustainability means for everybody is sustaining our ideals.
Ivy Le, a new and thirsty Austinite, hails from Dallas, but has been writing in Georgia for the last 11 years. Follow her on Twitter @UrbanHaiku.