Alcohol production and the environment is a hot topic, but the issues aren’t always black and white. Millie Milliken talks to drinks brands looking beyond official certification
The impact of the drinks industry on the environment has never been so high on the agenda. Last year’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow put whisky and its plans for carbon neutral status on the world stage; sustainability, from water use to packaging and waste, is raised at almost every trade event; and brands are seeking B Corp status at an increasingly rapid rate.
Drinks brands and their owners are working hard to make sure their businesses are doing more good than harm and being organic seems to be a positive way to go, right?
It’s also an area that is achieving increasing commercial success. Nielsen figures put organic food and drink sales in the year to May 2020 at their highest rate since 2016, with growth of 6.1% – double that of non-organic products.
But while there is little debate against the positives of being organic, there are drinks makers eschewing accreditation in favour of other practices that are perhaps less easy to understand or familiar. Decisions to focus on and invest in the production process in other ways, nuances in specific categories, local climate factors and shifting consumer perceptions can all call the pedestal-like status of organics into question.
For some categories, organic certification can be difficult and costly to achieve, even though such practices are being broadly adhered to. Tim Etherington-Judge, co-founder of B Corp-certified calvados producer Avallen, says the specifics of production make being organic almost impossible.
“We get our apples from hundreds of different orchards owned by hundreds of different people,” he says. “You maybe have 30 or 40 apple trees in a couple of acres and a farmer will sell the apples from them to a calvados maker. As an owner of those 40 apple trees, are you going to spend a load of money on being organic?”
Etherington-Judge points out that, while such farmers might not be certified organic, their practices fall within organic criteria. With the focus on collective community production and its distribution of wealth in the region, it scores high on sustainability too.
Instead, apple farmers are working towards wider high environment value (HEV) certifications that cover plant health, biodiversity and water consumption.
The work that goes into being organic isn’t disputed but there are other factors to consider when it comes to why a producer may or may not choose to be organic.
Phil Norman, head of production at B Corp-certified and vegan friendly canned wine brand The Uncommon, lists a few that make it harder than it seems: “Soil type and suitability, site exposition, planting density, trellis systems, varieties grown and, therefore, style of wines, farming practices and considerations, business model, yield/volume expectations and, ultimately, the bottom line.”
He notes that climate can play a role in the adoption of organic practices.
“Organic viticulture is limited by the number of pesticides permitted,” he says. “This is no problem in a year like 2018, when disease pressure was low, but the relentless rainfall in 2021 – and subsequent downy mildew onslaught – was catastrophic for many growers in both organic and conventional.”
The need for pesticides is minimal in Finland because of the cold weather, a factor Kyrö Distillery considered in its decision to use rye in its spirit production.
“The cultivation of rye as a rotational crop benefits the soil,” says head distiller Kalle Valkonen. “Rye is a winter grain, so it is sown in the autumn, which prevents nutrients leaking from the fields into water bodies. It also has very deep roots which benefit the structure of the soil and bring carbon to it, especially when a direct sowing method is applied.”
RESONATING WITH CONSUMERS
However, Kyrö doesn’t use organic rye, partly because yields are generally smaller than conventionally-grown rye, making the environmental impact of tilling the soil relatively higher.
In addition, Kyrö uses malted rye – and organically-grown rye can cause issues in the malting process. But being officially organic still resonates with many consumers.
“For customers I think certification is a good thing,” says Brodie Meah, co-owner of natural wine store Shop Cuvée in north London.
“Some people don’t want to do loads of research and learn all about agriculture in a wine shop. They just want to buy a bottle of wine that’s not made with loads of chemicals and leave.
“Organic certification is great for that, especially in larger shops or online where there’s no one on hand to help.”
However, he doesn’t think that the term “organic” has found acceptance in wine as it has with, say, fresh produce.
“There’s still some confusion among a large number of consumers who don’t really think of wine as a product made from fruit that’s been grown, in the same way their organic tomatoes have been grown.”
Shop Cuvée doesn’t especially promote products as organic because customers are more interested in the locality of what they’re drinking.
“Local is having its moment like organic did five or 10 years ago,” Meah says. “Hopefully this will continue to the point where we have access to local organic produce as the norm.”
For The Uncommon’s Norman, it’s customer curiosity that will help drinkers understand why organic might not always be right for a producer’s sustainability goals.
“If the consumer is interested and keen enough to learn about wines/brands and how the products are made, how those businesses operate and the ethos behind it all, I think they’d be surprised.”