This is an excellent question. The organics movement has long been animated by a group of people who invest in it values and ethics not everyone shares. For some people, industrial farming is in itself an evil and all its fruits tainted. It is therefore reasonable to wonder if the push toward organic beer is a manifestation of this larger agricultural critique.I'm still trying to figure out why Organic seems to be equated with better, but I have seen no proof of this anywhere. Everything has been anecdotal evidence of a kind of halo effect that makes it seem like a premium product.
Can someone shed some light on why consumers should care about it?
In comments further down the thread, Matt Swihart from Double Mountain brewing noted that organic barley isn't a huge departure from conventional barley "in that conventional farming of barley requires very little pesticide and nitrogen use. Organic barley and conventional barley have very similar environmental footprints...." So organic malt doesn't advance the ball much.
Hops, on the other hand, are a heavy user of chemicals to treat both pests and disease. This varies by hop strain, and those without much US parentage are generally more vulnerable. Local hops are more resilient--which is why the organic farm in Ashland grows Cascade. But more importantly, crops grown in a monoculture attract the very blights and pests that make the pesticides necessary. Organic growers use strategies that break up monoculture. When I was on the hop tour in the Willamette Valley, Gayle Goschie pointed to a nearby field of flowers that provided predatory insects to combat aphids. The upshot is that organic hop farming eliminates the use of lots of chemical pesticides.
I can't speak to how much organics affect beer quality and taste (though proponents, like Alan Sprints at Hair of the Dog, say it makes better beer), but reducing the reliance on pesticides is reason enough for me. Because hops are such a big part of the equation, I hope the USDA reverses itself and considers "organic beer" to require the use of organic hops.