Organic drinks: Challenging perceptions

Abel & Cole has been delivering organic food to British households for 30 years, and its ethos of offering good quality organic food and drink from ethical growers and producers, made in sustainable ways, is probably now more relevant to consumers than ever before.

The company reportedly puts together 55,000 food boxes a week, and orders went up by at least 25% when the first UK nationwide lockdown began.

This is an important message for the off-trade because yet again it is no longer just about keeping an eye on high street, supermarket and online competitors.

The rise in health-conscious and sustainable living has added new players, with the likes of Abel & Cole and rival Riverford going big on organic drinks, while others, such as Holland & Barrett, are increasingly allocating store space to premium alcohol-free products.

And because these retailers are ticking the boxes for health, sustainability, convenience and quality, the pandemic has escalated their relevance.

Outside of wine, organic drinks are becoming more plentiful and popular, but many producers say there is still a problem with perception of quality, although this is slowly changing.

Andy Hepworth, managing director of Hepworth Brewery, says when the company started producing organic beer 20 years ago, there wasn’t a great variety of quality materials available.

Farmers have now improved their methods and ingredients are often better than non-organic ones, while the range is also much more diverse.

He says: “Unfortunately there is still a reputation for organic beer dating back to pre-2000, when brewers were trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The younger generation does not have those prejudices, so I suspect that is helping the steady growth in sales.”

The producer is currently trying to develop organic low-alcohol beer. Hepworth believes the future is bright for organic beer, but says the cost of materials – up to 40% higher than nonorganic – makes it challenging.

He says: “The majority of beer sold in the off-trade is through multiple retailers, who insist on selling all strengths and quality at the same price, which means the extra cost of organic, basically from the cost of the materials, is difficult to recover.”

For Hepworth, organic is part of a wider strategy to improve its environmental credentials. It built its brewery to be sustainable, with solar panels to preheat its brewing water and offices, and reed beds to deal with liquid effluent.

This bigger-picture strategy is something consumers are slowly becoming more aware of, and certainly many are keen to understand more about the companies behind the products.

Sacred Spirits co-founder Hilary Whitney says: “Consumers are becoming increasingly health-conscious and more concerned about the environment and there definitely is a trend for people to drink less but drink better.”

She adds: “Of course, sustainability is also important to a growing number of consumers and while an organic product isn’t necessarily more sustainable, I am pleased to say Sacred’s organic product does also tick the sustainable box as our method of distillation, vacuum distillation, uses less than 10% of the energy of a conventional still.

“There is a wealth of information out there for the consumer. Having said that, I do think there is some confusion with organic and sustainable products.”

Most of the botanicals the producer uses are wholly organic and it has three products with Soil Association certification: Sacred Organic gin, vodka and sloe gin.

Liam Hirt, co-owner of Circumstance Distillery, says organic spirits have massive untapped potential but the main challenge is perception. “Organic food, and even wine, can be seen by the consumer as a healthier option. This is not true for spirits and misses the point – it is not about health but sustainability.

“Sustainability is a much harder sell for something that is consumed in relatively small qualities. If a consumer sees two empty wine bottles in their recycling at the end of the week they may consider the environmental impact of their purchases. Bottles of spirits often last months and that recognition is lacking.

The challenge is to help consumers think about the sustainability of every product they purchase, not just some.”

Circumstance released a vodka as its first organic product because, Hirt says, there was little choice in the sector. In addition, all the whisky it is distilling is certified organic. This is ageing and will be released in a few years.

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