A Letter to the Brewers of New Zealand – Michael O’Brien

Note: Michael from Craftwork Brewery in New Zealand forwarded this through to me and I enjoyed reading it so much I asked him if I could share it on the site. If I was to be honest I don’t know enough about the pros and cons of organic malt and other ingredients to make any useful commentary so I’ll let Michael’s letter speak for itself. I would love to hear any thoughts from readers about the issue. Cheers – (Luke)

Organic Malt

We are a very small brewery tucked away in a small town in a small country. The beer we make is what we like to drink and it’s not to everyone’s taste, nor budget. However we think we’ve done well, with quite a few medals and a good deal of publicity for our nano/ nana size.

When we started out in 2014, we bought local and organic. That meant  the malt from the lovely folks at Gladfield’s, in Canterbury.  Hops mostly from N.Z. Hops in Motueka.  Golden sugar from Taste Nature in Dunedin. Spices and fruit from our own gardens and the Organic Larder in Oamaru. We decided that we were too small to be an organic brewery and the cost of registering as an organic producer is prohibitive. So we labelled accordingly, listing organic ingredients as such. As Doug and Gabi only did the Pilsner malt organic, and as we brew Belgian styles, most of our beers are up to 95% organic. Two, with very simple grain bills are 100% organic. We’ve yet to capitalise on this, and have yet to sell  to a dedicated organic shop, so busy we are, trying to keep up with the outlets we already have.

Just before Christmas Gabi told us that Gladfield’s, in future ,will no longer be able to supply organic malt. An earlier warning was that  they no longer certified their organic pilsner malt. I was shocked to be honest as I never expected that- obviously was in denial as I ignored the warning signs of deregistration. A quick look around, revealed that all other breweries we knew to produce an organic beer ,   no longer seemed to , with “Organic” removed from labeling.

The reason for organic pilsner malt to be dropped is lack of demand. We are so small, and currently haven’t the capital to enlarge to increase orders beyond what a 100 litre brewery can produce.

In a recent trip to Belgium we found many classic producers such as Brasserie Dupont, make a side by side organic beer, next to their conventionally farmed products. It was not at all uncommon, and indeed one of the most famous breweries in the world, Cantillon in Brussels, is  completely organic, and even run the brewery on solar electricity.  

But we are in Clean Green New Zealand here, and I remember the optimistic push from the Soil and Health people back in the 1990’s for an Organic and G.M. free nation by 2020. Four years out from that goal, organic production of New Zealand grown barley malt ceases. Meanwhile, coffee for example has gone to organic free trade as normal rather than as an aberration. Beer drinkers have never been so discerning as they are now and spoilt for choice. Top restaurants and their chefs, also vie for local and or organic product, which is no longer seen as weird but better , fresher and tastier.

Yes, the malt is more expensive, around $50 a bag as opposed to $30. But we know as brewers that the ingredients inside the bottle is way less than the cost of packaging and taxes, per unit. So many brewers say they use the finest ingredients on their labels- what does that mean?

I appeal to the brewers of New Zealand to have a big think about this important and symbolic issue.  Gladfield’s need about 5 ton of malt orders per annum, to sustain demand for organic malt. One medium sized brewery could secure that on it’s own.

For us to remain organic, it will mean importing the malt from the other side of the planet, food miles we needn’t spend if we could source our own product and relish our own unique terroir.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  24th January 2016.

Kind regards,

Michael O’Brien for Craftwork Brewery, Oamaru. N.Z.

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