An interview with Peter Scholey
Peter Scholey is a Diploma Master Brewer of the Institute and Guild of Brewing, which is the top qualification. There are very few of them about, and nobody else has won “Champion Organic Beer of Britain” more times than him. He was head brewer at Brakspear of Henley on Thames until that company pulled out of brewing in 2002. Since then, he has run his own business, Beer Counter, producing niche and bespoke beers, principally bottled for anyone who wants them. He brewed the 2003 “Soil Association organic beer of the year”, and plans on brewing lots more tasty numbers for our pleasure.
Here’s what Peter has to say about drinking organic beer…
There is a lot of rubbish written about beer in general and an equally large amount about organic beer so be warned my opinion may not agree with conventional wisdom or hearsay: Also be warned that all below is enormous oversimplification with all that that implies.
What chemical additives are generally added to beers that are not allowed under organic guidelines?
There are a few things used in conventional brewing that are not allowed in organic brewing, but we must be very clear of a couple of things on this subject.
None of the additives used in beer are recognised by mainstream science or governments as harmful at the levels or in the way used. This issue is not the same as some pesticides, where we all agree they are best avoided.
Many brewers don’t use these additives in their non-organic beer. I myself produce non-organic beers and don’t use any of these additives, and the same is true of others both large and small. Why not? They cost money and aren’t necessary.
Some organic certification bodies classify filter powders as additives. In my opinion, they aren’t. They don’t end up in the beer any more than the steel mesh in your cafetiere ends up in the coffee. The issue arises because some materials are used because they adsorb proteins or tannins from beer onto the surface of their particles. This helps to stop beer going cloudy on the shelf. If you look closely you will find that the plastic parts of your cafetiere have exactly the same property – that’s why they stain. Should we ban plastic cafetieres for organic coffee?
- Caramel: Pretty ubiquitous in brown foodstuffs. Some kinds may be bad for you. Easy to replace with roast barley syrup, but it costs more so many continue with caramel.
- Enzymes: To break down proteins or starch or cell walls. These are the same enzymes you find naturally in malted barley, but artificially generated. They’re generally produced by inserting a gene into a mould or bacterium which can then be grown in culture. The enzyme is concentrated from this culture. Many commercial sugar syrups for confectionery, cakes, soft drinks etc. are made from grain starch using such enzymes. This applies only to those made by enzyme hydrolysis of starch from cereals, primarily corn and wheat. Syrups made from sugar cane or beet do not need such treatment because the plant naturally contains the sugar sucrose. It’s used in brewing to increase yield or to use poorer quality malt. Also used to produce most low carbohydrate beers.
- Foam preserving agents: Essentially a variation on the same alginates from seaweed that are used in pretty much every non-organic ice cream. In beer they do exactly the same job – to thicken the foam and make it last longer. You could make an organic equivalent because seaweed is cultivated organically, but nobody does yet.
- Sodium hexaflourocyanate is the anti-caking agent in ordinary table salt. It’s not allowed in organic salt. So if you do use a little salt in your beer as many do, you have to smash the lumps up with a hammer. Not a big price to avoid the sodium hexa-whatnot…
Are organic beers generally brewed for longer?
No. Strictly speaking the brewing process and the fermentation process take no longer. Organic beers usually take longer to condition than non-organic because of two things:
- Not using the tannin absorbing filter powders and
- Organic malt is often pretty bad to brew with. Despite longer conditioning, organic beer still keeps for a much shorter time before going cloudy. As little as half the shelf life of non-organic beers.
Like organic wines, do organic beers contain less hangover-causing chemicals?
A nice story widely used, but an urban myth. I am aware of no reputable science that shows that organic beers cause less hangover simply because they are organic and do not believe it to be true. It may well be that certain products produced organically have this property, such as non-organic wine with lots of sulphur dioxide, but it will be the way in which they were made rather than their intrinsic nature which causes it. You can certainly influence the degree of hangover potential in a beer, but I could do it equally well for organic or non-organic. A minor snag is that such tinkering usually affects flavour because the rule of thumb is more flavour equals more bad head.
What else makes organic beers better than non-organic beers, other than the environmental reasons behind the organic movement?
I think the main answer to this one is deceptively simple: to bother to produce organic beer at all, you must be a bit of an enthusiast. Otherwise you wouldn’t do it. There is certainly currently no financial incentive, so those that do it must care more than the average person about what they are choosing to do. That has to show up in the quality of what they produce.
Organic malt is generally poor because what is needed most to make good malt is uniformity of barley. Uniformity is of course what organic does worst! Fortunately the flavour doesn’t suffer. Organic hops on the other hand seem to be better than their non-organic cousins. They look worse, but in my opinion have better and stronger aroma when comparing like for like. This may be something to do with giving the plant a hard time… like growing grapes on difficult ground. Because hops are notoriously hard to grow organically.