From organic fruits and vegetables to macaroni and cheese and even organic Cheetos, the consumer market is overflowing with products that promote the “green” lifestyle. So it comes as no surprise that operators are looking for more organic options that will also work behind the bar.
According to the Greenfield, Ma.-based Organic Trade Association, sales of organic beer, wine and spirits were up last year. Organic beer sales totaled $41 million in 2009, up 11.7 percent from 2008; organic wine sales equaled $161 million, up 7.5 percent; and spirits were up 16 percent with $7 million in sales.
“I really think the trend is growing in the spirits, beer and wine arena, because of what is happening outside of the hotel and industry,” says Christine Krenos, director of beverage at The Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles and The JW Marriott Los Angeles. JW Marriott has 45 locations in 19 countries. “You have Whole Foods popping up everywhere and some interest is attributed to great marketing and the trend toward overall health and wellness.”
Mike Sammons, proprietor of 13 celsius Wine Bar in Houston, agrees. “In the restaurant and bar industry I think the green concept came from what I have seen as a sort of mini-Renaissance in the whole food scene,” he says. “Locally produced, organic products are now sought out and really wanted. In the recent past, say only eight or 10 years ago, most consumers were more concerned with quantity and speed than with quality.” He carries 12 organic wines, priced from $30 to $200 a bottle.
The challenge for operators often lies in finding a truly 100-percent organic product. To be designated organic, a beer wine or spirit must meet the strict standards set out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which doesn’t allow for use of pesticides or any added sulfites.
“It’s difficult to make organic wine,” says Bill Nelson, president of WineAmerica, a Washington D.C.-based trade association of wineries. “There are some people who make organic wines and don’t add [additional] sulfites. But most mainstream wineries think it’s too risky, as there is not an antimicrobial substitute that works as well.” Not adding additional sulphites during the wine making process can make wines unstable and more prone to oxidation.
Instead most wines go with the designation of “made with organically grown grapes,” as it is logically easier than passing complex certification standards and also more affordable. “Sustainable is being defined on a state-by-state basis for wine, because of the different growing conditions in the individual states,” explains Nelson.
Beer and spirits have a similar battle, which shows in the limited number of brands designated organic. That said, the consumer demand for organic products behind the bar is picking up steam as operators are finding that consumers are willing to pay a premium for this trendy and potentially “better-for-you” category of quaffs.
Sustainable by Design
For some venues, carrying organic beer, wine and spirits is part of theme or vibe of the restaurant. The decision to offer organic quaffs at the 4004-room ARIA Resort and Casino in Las Vegas came while the building was still being constructed as an LEED Gold-certified building. “The LEED certification makes us want to do the right thing when it comes to sustainability,” says Heidi Hinkle, director of beverage. There are 50 organic wines available at ARIA, priced from $38 to $695 a bottle.
A similar scenario took place at Disney Resort, which began using organic ingredients in June of 2008 with the opening of The Wave… of America Flavors at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Orland, Fla. The casual-dining restaurant has sustainability as a theme. The restaurant offered three organic draft beers from the Orlando Brewing Company when it opened. “The organic beer flight—which is a sampler of all three—is a top seller,” says Brad Ward, Orlando-based beverage sales notes standards manager at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. He adds that the recently added Wolaver Organic Beers represent 40 percent of all beer sold at The Wave. Wines made with organically grown grapes like Sterling Vineyards Chardonnay ($9 a glass, $39 a bottle), Sterling Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($10 a glass, $45.00 a bottle), Natura Chardonnay from Chile’s Central Valley ($9.50 a glass, $34 a bottle) and Moon Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($6.50 a glass, $68 a bottle) are also on the list.
Supplies of organic drinks are still limited. “That being said, there are still not that many organic offerings currently on the beverage scene for chain accounts,” says Ward. “This trend is still growing and will take a while to get more momentum.” Hinkle concurs, noting that there was a definite challenge in finding the right brands. “Vodka is the leader in organic spirits,” she explains. “The supplies are pretty much limited for other spirits.” She believes it has remained the category leader in part because it is one of the least expensive spirits to produce overall.
But the desire among consumers is still there. “People are definitely supporting the organic movement,” Hinkle explains. “It’s not a luxury anymore; it’s a lifestyle change that people are willing to spend more money on if available.” Some operators are pricing their organic offerings at higher price points and most haven’t met resistance. As for mixability, Hinkle admits not having a lot of experience with the organic products. “The products we bought were the ones we thought were the most mixable,” she says. For example the Down the Hatch, priced at $12, cocktail is made with Crop Organic Tomato Vodka, Hatch Green Chile Puree and house-made Bloody Mary mix. They also serve Square One Cucumber Vodka ($10 neat, $12 to $14 in a specialty cocktail).
She adds, “It is difficult to execute a fully ‘organic’ cocktail as that would entail the ice, bar tools, etc. to also be certified organic. My thought is if you are going to say it’s ‘organic’ then 100 percent of that cocktail from the beginning to the end needs to follow the ‘organic’ guidelines.”
More and customers are looking for organic alcoholic beverage offerings and bar mangers are rushing to comply. At Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, the trend has always been for local and organic foods. “The demand for organics in Boulder is pretty high,” says assistant manager Kate Campbell. “Being vegetarian and vegan, our clientele lead us into being organic, we didn’t start out that way. The guests assumed we were offering organic beverages.” She also operates the Aji restaurant next door and notes that guests will often dine there and ask for the organic products that are on Leaf’s list.
Now, keeping true to the restaurant’s theme—and customers’ desires—all of the spirits at Leaf have some sort of organic designation and 95 percent of the wine offerings are made with organically grown grapes. Campbell carries some 28 wines, priced from $36 to $150. Organic and local beers include St. Deschutes Brewery Green Lakes Ale and Samuel Smith’s lager, both priced at $5. “With the exception of a couple of wines, our whole beverage menu is organic,” says Campbell. For example, she offers Vodka 14, a craft distilled organic vodka. This is infused with pomegranate, lemongrass, cucumber, espresso and green tea for martinis, menued at $8. Leaf also features Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, $8 a pour, and Jackelope Gin for $7. Organic wines include Benziger Merlot ($45 a bottle), Sutcliff Vineyards Cinsault ($45 a bottle) and Bonny Doon Nebbiolo ($55 a bottle).
Papa G’s in Portland, Oregon, has been offering customers vegan deli food since 1999, so it is no surprise that once they started serving drinks in September 2009 they went organic. “Having organic wine and beer was driven by demand,” says owner Grant Dixon.
The organic model definitely fit in at Papa G’s where Dixon boasts having no garbage pail, only a compost bin and recycling bin. With an eye toward sustainability, local beers from Hubb Brewery are regulars at Papa G’s. All beers are priced at $3.50 for a 12-ounce glass or bottle, which Dixon admits is on the low side while they experiment with the new offerings.
“We are really committed to using organic ingredients,” explains Dixon. Other local brews at Papa G’s include Fish Tale Organic Blonde Ale and Deschutes Mirror Pond and Green Lakes Organic Ale. A self-proclaimed “beer snob,” Dixon says he cares about making sure a good quality beer is available for his guests. For example, they feature the locally bottled Captured by Porches, which if purchased requires that customers return bottles in order to get their $1 deposit. They are directly reusing them,” he notes.
Bottled brews at Papa G’s include the Captured by Porches Brewing Company’s Miskatonic Dark Rye Ale and Invasive Species IPA, the Fish Tale Organic IPA, Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Deschutes Green Lakes Organic Ale, Rainier and Caldera Brewing IPA from Ashland, Oregon, which, according to Dixon, is “good beer in a can.”
In keeping with the restaurant’s theme, many of the wines at Papa G’s are vegan, which means the wine has to be made without using any animal ingredients like egg whites or gelatin, including Orleans Hill Cote Zero and Our Daily Red from the Nevada Wine Company, Cooper Mountain Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Hip Chicks Wine’s Wine Bunny Blush. All wines are $4 a glass. “We offer about three to four different wines at a time and try to buy local as much as we can,” says Dixon.
Few operators interviewed noted carrying biodynamic product. Guidelines for producing “bio” wines are drastically different than organic guidelines. 13 celius’ Mike Sammons says that, “Biodynamic employs a myriad number of ‘unique’ techniques. The program is in sync with natural phenomena like the waning and waxing of the moon, for example. Things are done [such as harvesting and/or crushing] in line with specific moments in time and season.”
Carrying organic alcoholic beverages can be tough to market on-premise. As the “better for you trend” continues to grow, Krenos notes, that alcoholic beverages have a unique challenge, with people then questioning things like “Is vodka really good for you?”
At the JW Marriot brand, Krenos is focused on incorporating organic quaffs in the recently launched brand’s list. For example, on the core list for the JW brand, organic Prairie Vodka is a mandate on the list and Samuel Smith’s Lager is a must-carry beer for the chain.
But the sustainability of the products carried at JW Marriott is not always called out to the consumer. “We carry organic and sustainable products and do it under the radar,” says Krenos. “We give the guests what we decide is the best, if it happens to be sustainable and biodynamic, great. I don’t think people will shy away from things that aren’t organic.”
“My guests trust that I will serve what I think is best,” she continues. “I don’t think [whether or not something is organic] is necessarily a decision-maker.” JW Marriott features Prairie Organic Vodka, Ty Ku Liqueur and 4 Copas—all priced on par with other premium spirits—on its spirits menu. Samuel Smith is currently the only organic beer available while some green wines include Picket Fence from Sonoma and Casa Lapostolle from Chile wines.
Ward also treads somewhat lightly in marketing organic quaffs. “It’s worth noting that we market organic beverage as being made with ‘better for you’ ingredients and are careful not to refer to these as healthy,” he explains. “Drinks with organic spirits are a fun and unique part of our menu. We will continue to develop and market them as long as there is interest from our guests.”
The Wave features the Agave Nectar Margarita ($10.25) and a Skinny Senorita, both made with Tierras Organic Blanco Tequila. There is also a Raspberry Rain cocktail ($9.25) and Sweet Nectar Martini ($9.25), made with Rain Organics Red Grape Hibiscus Vodka.
Organic products continue to have a reputation of being better for you and some bar managers feel good promoting them. “The association in my mind, and other consumers, as well, is that an organically made wine has probably been better treated by whoever has made it,” Sammons says. “In other words, the winemaker who farms and bottles organically is likely very involved in the quality of his/her product and will strive harder to ensure it is as delicious and satisfying as possible to the potential consumer.”
Organic wines at 13 celsius are described as such on the menu. “I have to admit that I do actually push the organic stuff so in that sense I suppose they are promoted differently than others,” says Sammons. He currently carries 12 organic wines on his list, priced from $14 a glass to more than $120 a bottle, including selections from French producer Nicolas Joly as well as Northeastern Italian Radikon and Gravner Wines.
Hand sell or not, bar managers agree that the organic trends are here to stay. And there is plenty of room to expand. “We are behind when it comes to beverages versus food,” says Hinkle. “The organic trend will continue to evolve but there is an education that has to happen about what is out there and what it means to be organic.”
The Cheers editorial team would like to note that the three organic beers from the Orlando Brewing Company are no longer carried by The Wave as was indicated in the original print story.