Drinking responsibly

Testers debate the taste and appreciate the greenness of local and organic beers

Take one down and pass it around …

Take one down and pass it around …

SN&R Photo Illustration By David Jayne

Some foodies will tell you that buying local is the new organic. Others uphold the old adage that organic is the way to grocery shop. And when comparing the green merits of organic versus locally brewed beer, some will argue that the right answer has to be tested—taste tested.

So SN&R assembled a group of tasters to take local and organic beers head-to-foamy-head. The tasters varied from beer enthusiasts used to describing a brew’s “mouthfeel” and aroma, to folks who enjoy beer on a purely recreational level. The beer selection process had simple rules: Local beer had to be brewed and bottled in Sacramento and the organic beer had to hail from California.

Our first round of tasting squared an organic amber ale from Eel River Brewing Company against a locally bottled amber ale from Hoppy Brewing Company.

The Eel River Brewery boasts free-spirited slogans like “Be natural—drink naked” and “Have you had your climax today?” so it’s no surprise to hear that the brewery’s based in Humboldt County. While Eel’s ethos jolts the senses, its amber ale—the brewery’s first ever certified organic brew—is smooth and subtle. Tasters were satisfied with its light malt, small bite, and earthy, nutty aftertaste.

We compared Eel’s ale to Hoppy Brewing Company’s “Hoppy Face Amber Ale” because the latter is Hoppy’s flagship brew. Like Eel, Hoppy is kind of “hippie,” with its tie-dyed labels boasting eccentric beer names like “Total Eclipse Black Ale” or “Stony Face Red Ale.” But Hoppy’s major focus is on a full-bodied “mouthfeel” product, a term beer enthusiasts use to describe the overall flavor experience of a drink. And Hoppy delivers what it promises: Tasters found the ale to have a more pronounced malt. Its aftertaste was bitter, rough and dry compared to Eel’s smooth, inoffensive amber.

In round one, organic beat out local. The Eel River Amber Ale was unanimously preferred by SN&R’s tasters.

So what does it mean to buy organic beer, exactly? Organic certification is given to the hops (the flower used to flavor and stabilize beer) and barley (the grain that’s “malted,” or soaked in water, to lend starchy character to a beer), to indicate that they were grown without the interference of toxic pesticides, fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetic modification or irradiation. The result is a set of purer ingredients with less of an environmental impact than the process of making regular beer.

The second round of tasting pitted an organic IPA from Butte Creek against an IPA from Sacramento’s own Rubicon Brewing Company.

IPA (or India Pale Ale) is characterized by a high alcohol and hops content, leaving a bitter, astringent bite. So when certified organic Butte Creek brewery’s IPA boasted a citrus and nutmeg aroma with hints of licorice to taste, one of our guests said, “I would get bored after one drink.” Save the sweet spice notes for wine.

But Butte Creek is doing something right: Nestled in the heart of college town, Chico, Calif., the company offers something more refined than a sophomoric keg party: certified organic brews since 1996.

While impartial to the Butte Creek IPA, tasters loved Rubicon’s version. It offered the raw, rough lingering that IPA drinkers anticipate, but our tasters noted that Rubicon’s variety was creamier than a typical IPA. Sentiments like “awesome,” “interesting,” “this leaves me wanting more,” and “it’s a good marriage between hops and malt” made the Rubicon IPA a clear local winner over the Butte Creek organic IPA. It’s not surprising—after all, IPA is the Rubicon’s signature brew.

“It’s just one of the ones that we gravitated toward early on in the process and it’s just what our customers have chosen to drink for the past 20 years,” Rubicon Brewmaster Scott Cramlet said.

In this case, local really is the new organic. But what does that mean for beer consumers? For one, it keeps profits circulating in the local community. On a broad scale, local brews prevent greenhouse-gas emissions caused when beer is freighted to a store many miles from where it’s brewed. And, on a lighter note, buying local beer supports the existence of community spaces like the Rubicon, where Sacramentans can enjoy a sidewalk patio and plenty of indoor seating.

And speaking of community, any good tasting party ends before guests get too tipsy, and visions of pizza and curly fries cloud their interest in describing “mouthfeel.” So with one point for team organic and one point for team local, we adjourned our tasting notes until next week when we invite you, dear readers, to join in on the fun. To make the final verdict fair, we ask you to send in your thoughts on the best local versus the best organic dark beer for our team to taste test. Send suggestions to <script type="text/javascript" language="javascript"> </script> and check Green Days next week for the final result.