Sustainable buzz: The natural food market is exploding, so why aren’t drinkers going organic, too?

Prairie Organic Spirits has committed 1 percent of all sales to helping farmers transition from conventional to organic. Above: Prairie’s CEO Mike Duggan and master distiller Ben Guderian.

Prairie Organic Spirits has committed 1 percent of all sales to helping farmers transition from conventional to organic. Above: Prairie’s CEO Mike Duggan and master distiller Ben Guderian. Jerard Fagerberg

When you think organic, an immediate image comes to mind: a bumpy, freckled heirloom tomato. A bushel of herbs. A cornucopia erupting with broccoli. Kale.

Never do you think of a crisp pilsner or a bottle of distilled corn mash.

In 1997, organic food sales totaled only $3.6 billion. Last year, that number crested above the $50 billion mark for the first time, and nearly 6 percent of all food raised in the United States today is certified organic. But the surge has not translated to the booze market. Absent that visual association, alcohol shoppers decide on their intoxicant of choice without ever considering if the thing they’re drinking was made with pesticides, GMOs, or sustainable farming techniques.

“The demand for organic is very broad, but not very deep,” says Danny Schwartzman, owner of Whittier restaurant Common Roots. “A lot of people are interested in it, but once you’re beyond the grocery store shelf, there’s not very many people demanding it. Distilled and brewed stuff is a few steps removed from that.”

Schwartzman is a firebrand in the sustainable food community. He’s served organic brands like Minnesota’s own Prairie Organic Spirits in his restaurant, but his diners don’t order cocktails with the same intent that they do shakshuka. Schwartzman’s words echo a question no brewer, distiller, or retailer has quite cracked: Why aren’t there more options for organic shoppers who want to catch a guilt-free buzz?

“The customer is the same person, they’re just not given the option,” says Mike Duggan, CEO of Prairie. “We know that 80 percent of U.S. households have something organic in them today. We also know that 65 percent of people, when given the choice and relatively the same price, they’ll choose organic.”

Prairie, produced by Princeton’s Phillips Distilling, is the largest of a very small population of organic distillers in the United States. Locally and nationally, they’ve led the charge to get USDA-certified organic booze into the glasses of local drinkers. Earlier this year, they committed 1 percent of all sales to helping farmers transition from conventional to organic, with the aim to drag the beverage world along with them.

Prairie has increased production from 12,000 to 200,000 cases per year since 2012, but the uptick hasn’t been the groundswell it anticipated when the company was founded in 2008. Organic represents .01 percent of all alcohol sales in the U.S. today. Prairie’s ultimate goal is to raise that figure to 5 percent, a market change that would prevent an estimated 7.4 million pounds of pesticides from being dumped into the ground.

“The consumer is gonna lead the way,” Duggan says.

The beverage world is much bigger than liquor, and Prairie isn’t alone in its crusade for a sustainable buzz. St. Paul’s Bang Brewing opened in 2013 as the state’s first organic brewery. At the time, organic beer was the industry’s next big trend. Maine’s Peak Brewing had made “organic” a buzzword half a decade before, and ever since, analysts have been howling about a non-GMO, sustainable beer trend.

It continues to this day—hell, even Michelob advertised an organic beer during this year’s Super Bowl—but six years later, Bang remains Minnesota’s only devoted organic brewery. Owners Jay and Sandy Boss Febbo thought the market would’ve lapped them by now.

“We named our brewery in 2007, but we didn’t open until 2013, and I thought someone would beat us to it,” Sandy says. “Every year, we get a little bit louder about what we’re doing. We want to be an example for others. There’s a way.”

The movement took a big hit when market leader Summit discontinued its Hopvale Organic Ale in 2017 after just two years on the market. The Boss Febbos speculate that Summit cut Hopvale because of the increased cost of producing organic beer, and distributor skepticism. But organic is a lifestyle to them, and they’ve started reaching out to re-invigorate their peers. This year, they started the Organic Brewers Alliance to help share resources and make sure that putting organic on tap isn’t a business risk.

“We’ve been so heads-down working [and] we haven’t had the time or the bandwidth to do anything,” Sandy says. “Now we have to do it. It’s time to lift our heads up and reach out.”

“That’s what the Organic Brewers Alliance has come from,” Joe adds. “Organic brewers are usually smaller, and we want to pool our demand so we can get farmers involved and start growing more. This is a clearinghouse. It’s basically a co-op, it’s that model.”

Ronnie Cummins founded the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minnesota, in 1998. At that time, the community of health-minded produce shoppers was more of a fringe group than a mainstream movement. Today they’re a multinational network that champions the best interests of food buyers worldwide. The OCA spends much of its resources on legal activities such as suing companies for false advertising or lobbying for organic-positive legislation, but its primary directive has always been public education.

“Health concerns have driven the market,” Cummins says. “It’s especially been women: mothers, grandmothers, parents of young children really seem to get more concerned about the food they’re buying and cooking once they have kids or grandkids.”

Annie’s grew into a market leader in organic because mothers didn’t want to feed their kids hormones. They’re not making gimlets for their toddlers, so the push for organic gin isn’t as strong.

The expectations of drinking are quintessentially different than those of eating. When you purchase alcohol, you commit to an unhealthy decision. What difference does it make if there are no pesticides in your vodka tonic if the whole idea is to poison yourself?

“People probably feel a little bit guilty about drinking wine or beer or spirits compared to eating healthy food,” Cummins says. “They don’t think about it as much. They should.”

As a consumer advocacy group, the OCA operates at the same level as the average consumer. Their function is to see through the eyes of the Common Roots diner or the liquor store customer weighing Prairie versus Svedka on a Friday afternoon. Ultimately, though, they’re at the same impasse as the retailers.

“It’s gonna happen, but it’s gonna require consumer education,” Cummins says. “When you look at the damage to your health from ingesting pesticides, why in the hell isn’t the organic business booming?”