Exhibitors at the Green Valley Brewery booth at last spring’s All Things Organic trade show created a buzz for their Wild Hop organic beer by whispering, “We have a distribution deal with Anheuser-Busch.”

Regional breweries, entrepreneurs and major players are climbing aboard the organic beer bandwagon. Wolaver’s created the category, and Peak Organic is one of the newest entries, along with Anheuser-Busch’s Stone Mill label. Sources: Otter Creek Brewing, Peak Organic Brewing Co., Anheuser-Busch Inc.

As it turns out, the deal wasn’t exactly a coup: Green Valley is a virtual brewery, and its brew kettles are in A-B’s Fairfield, CA, plant. The St. Louis beer giant created the fanciful organic brewery for Wild Hop, along with a brick-and-mortar operation in Merrimack, NH, for Stone Mill pale ale, its other organic entry.

Don’t look for any linkage to the House of Bud on the label or cartons of either beer, however. And no mention of the corporate parent is made atwww.stonemillpaleale.comorwww.wildhoplager.com.

Keeping a low package profile makes sense for A-B, allows Doug Moody, marketing director at Fort Bragg, CA-based North Coast Brewing Co. “There’s almost an anti-A-B sentiment among craft-brew drinkers,” he says. Even the organic angle is understated, though Wild Hop and Stone Mill clearly are positioned as craft beers. “With some of these beers, it’s very difficult to tell that it’s organic,” notes Jon Cadoux, a Burlington, MA, entrepreneur who markets Peak Organic beer. “Our bottle screams organic.”

Bottled organic beers first appeared on store shelves in 1998 with Wolaver’s, a contract brew that relied on a network of craft breweries to stitch together national distribution. By 2002, sales volume justified Wolaver’s purchase of Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury, VT, where organic is approaching half the brewery’s annual output, according to Morgan Wolaver, president and partner. The Wolaver family also developed Whole Foods’ private label organic beer, Lamar Street Pale Ale. Named after the road in front of Whole Foods’ headquarters, Lamar Street now is brewed by Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co., a regional brewery partly owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Organic beer from America’s largest brewery is viewed as a mixed blessing. “If they’re making delicious organic beer, it’s good for everyone, including farmers who are focused on sustainability,” believes Cadoux, whose products are made at Shipyard Brewing Co., Portland, ME. On the other hand, organic barley and hops already were in short supply, and companies must petition USDA for any deviation from 100% organic content. That includes carbon dioxide injected into the bottle, points out Wolaver. “In July, our 98% organic petition could be denied,” he says.

For now, the organic segment of craft beers “is so small,” Beer Marketers Insights notes, “it’s not really on the radar.” Annual volume for some is little more than the beer that goes down the drain during a changeover at Miller or Bud breweries. But double-digit growth is the rule with craft beers generally and organics in particular, and mainstream success for Wild Hop or Stone Mill could signal a new era.