It’s not easy being organic, but the pressure is worth it
I used to scoff at the term organic. To me, it was used by companies in an attempt to charge more for something that was literally grown from the ground, like a tomato or a head of lettuce. How much more organic can you get, honestly?
Apparently, a lot more. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the federal regulator in charge of creating and enforcing restrictions on everything from labelling foodstuffs to regulating biotechnology, the term “organic” is only allowed to be applied to products that have been certified by the Canada Organic Regime. Companies and products that have been certified bear the Canada Organic logo as proof (though, they don’t have to use the logo if they don’t want to, it’s completely voluntary).
That being said, organic fruits, veggies and other foodstuffs have become the norm; like white noise, we don’t even notice the term at the grocery store anymore, choosing our produce based on personal preference and the desire to rid our diet of chemicals, or to help promote eco-friendly agricultural practices. The new (ish) members of the organic world, the spirits — organic vodkas, whiskies, rye, gin, applejack and more — have started taking up more space on store shelves. They bear the Canada Organic logo, but have yet to really explain themselves … what does it really mean when my vodka is organic?
Two producers making headway with their organic spirits are Pemberton Distillery in British Columbia, and Toronto Distillery Co. Pemberton Distillery was the first certified organic distillery in BC and one of the first in the world to develop an entire line of organic spirits. They make organic potato vodka, gin, single malt whisky (the only organic one in Canada), wild-crafted absinthe and coffee liqueur. Pemberton was also the first distillery to win a double-gold medal for potato vodka at an international spirits competition. Toronto Distillery Co. makes organic rye, dry Canadian gin, beet spirit and applejack. In fact, they made Canada’s first and only certified organic white whisky back in 2013.
Pemberton’s Master Distiller Tyler Schramm and Toronto Distillery’s co-founder Charles Benoit were on hand to help me navigate the uncertain definitions and meanings of the term organic when it comes to spirits. So let’s start by outlining what the term really means.
Schramm explains: “We are a certified organic distillery so when we put the term on our label it means that all of our raw materials have come from organic farms or suppliers, that all the cleaners we use are approved by the organic body and that they are biodegradable. It also means that we go through audits on a regular basis by the organic body which assures the consumer that our product conforms to organic standards.”
The Canada Organic Regime, according to the CFIA, “oversees all parties involved in the certification of organic products (including operators producing organic products, Certification Bodies and Conformity Verification Bodies), and verifies all applicable regulatory requirements, standards and guidance documents.” In short, they are watching to ensure that when a product uses the term, it really is organic.
While there are three levels of certification, the Canada Organic logo is “only permitted on products that have an organic content that is greater than or equal to 95 percent and have been certified according to the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime,” states the CFIA website. Products with anything less than 95 percent can list the organic contents on their ingredients label or in advertising, specifying the percentage of organic ingredients, but they cannot use the logo itself. An interesting fact is that the terminology “100% Organic” is not permitted, according to the CFIA (so if you pick up something that has that claim on the label, put it right back down).
“The symbol is the only way you can know for sure,” says Benoit. “You’re definitely not supposed to use the word organic in your products if they’re not, but the only way consumers can know for sure is with the Canada Organic logo.”
There’s another side to the logo that many may not realize, and that’s traceability. “I had no idea when we started distilling, that there’s very little traceability in food distribution,” says Benoit. “I was really stunned to find out, when I asked ‘where’s the wheat from’ all they could say was ‘Western Canada.’ So there’s no traceability.” Benoit and his team at Toronto Distillery believe that the ingredients used in their spirits are just as important as how they are distilled. So knowing where their ingredients come from is of utmost importance — and supporting local agriculture is one of their goals. “Without the organic system, it almost seems we wouldn’t be able to buy local,” states Benoit.
In order for their spirits to be considered organic, the distilleries must undergo annual audits. For Toronto Distillery Co. in Ontario, the audit is completed by Ecocert Canada. And it’s a piece of cake. “We’ve had three now,” says Benoit. “It’s good. I mean we’re very confident because we’re not trying to cut any corners. They just come and inspect our records and make sure we’re sourcing from organic producers. I think it’s a lot harder for farms, because they’ve got to show that their fields have not been exposed to GMOs for a really long time. But we don’t have that because we’re just a processor.”
It seems to be business as usual over in BC, too. “I think it would be a sign that we were doing something wrong if it was really stressful,” states Schramm. “But we do stop all other activities that day to focus on the audit, as the organic system is a user-pay and the longer the audit takes the more it costs so it is in our interest to have it go smoothly.” For Schramm, they have an independent organic inspector come in to inspect their files. “The […] inspector, myself and my wife, who is my business partner, comb through our records, checking to make sure that all inputs are certified organic. We also have to do trace backs, which is following a product’s history backwards to the raw materials it came from, which can mean finding a lot of records.”
Ultimately, the first step for organic distilleries is to find certified farms. “We are pretty lucky in BC to be well endowed with organic farms,” says Schramm. “Under BC provincial rules as a craft distillery, we must use BC agricultural products as our raw materials for fermenting … which sometimes proves a bit challenging, but year by year this has become easier and we now can now find almost everything we need.” In order to hold the title of organic, these farms undergo annual audits, just like the distilleries, to ensure that they meet the requirements set out by the Canada Organic Regime — only permitted fertilizers, plant foods, soil amendments, aids, materials and weed management systems can be used; if livestock are involved, then feed type and additives are all monitored. Any deviation will result in the annulation of their organic status.
After they have their materials, distilleries have to ensure that their production methods meet the Canada Organic Regime’s requirements. This includes processing and sanitation methods with everything from ingredients to pest control substances in their building monitored. “You gotta be careful what kind of cleaners you use,” says Benoit. “That’s a big one, for sure. You can’t just use any cleaners. It’s nice because a by-product of our spirit making is a high-proof spirit, because we made it from organic grain we can actually make an organic solvent. As long as we make sure our cleaning materials are listed as an organic product, we’re alright.”
“We decided to be a 100 percent organic distillery so it does make maintaining our status a little easier than a mixed-producer that has both organic and non-organic raw materials onsite,” states Schramm. Organic distilleries have to ensure that the materials are not “contaminated” by non-organic raw materials. For distilleries that make organic and non-organic spirits, that means a separate storage unit, separate tools used to move the ingredients and separate machines for the processing (or, at least, special certified cleaning products). Luckily for Pemberton and Toronto Distillery, they don’t have to worry about that. Instead, they have to consider the other difficulties that come with being all organic, all the time.
“We likely have to do a lot more record keeping and testing than a non-organic producer. We also have to follow certain procedures specified by the organic body that non-organic producer would not have to follow,” says Schramm. “More than anything it means that we have to use less additives, there are somewhere between 100 to 200 different additives that can be used throughout the brewing, distilling and winemaking process, some are pretty basic such as calcium carbonate to adjust the mineral content of water but others are complex such as silicone-based anti-foam agents for fermentation vessels. We use none of these anywhere throughout our entire process.”
Starting off as an organic distillery right from the get-go does reduce the challenges. “We went organic basically right away,” says Benoit. “So I think it was a lot easier because we grew up inside the system. I imagine if we hadn’t, there were a lot of things we would have had to change.” But that doesn’t change the fact that there are additional costs associated with being an organic producer. “All of our raw materials are more expensive than if we were using non-organic, in some cases as much as double in price,” says Schramm. “Spirits, beer and wine have not really seen the same price differential between organic and non-organic like you see in the grocery store for food items … This means that it is costing us more to produce our organic spirits but they are selling for the same amount as their non-organic counter parts.”
It has to make you wonder (I know I did), with all the red tape associated with using the Canada Organic logo, why go that route?
“With organic, there’s perfect traceability,” states Benoit. “You can go to the farm and know exactly where the grain is from. That’s why we chose to go organic.”
“My original interest was in organic agriculture and Pemberton is somewhat famous in the agricultural world for its seed potatoes,” says Schramm. “These two ideas kind of collided for me and my initial idea for the distillery was for a potato vodka made from organic Pemberton potatoes. Being organic was something that I was passionate about. So despite it being a lot of work … and costing a lot … it was, and I still believe it is, a very worthwhile endeavour.”