Putting it into Practice | December 6, 2010

Raise a toast to family farmers! How your drink choices can support them.

Summertime in my house means a few things: bringing on all the berries I can get my red- and blue-stained hands on for the few short weeks they’re actually available here in Massachusetts, waiting and waiting for my tomatoes to grow and lighting up the charcoal grill in the backyard as often as possible. Perhaps most importantly, it means relaxing on the back deck with a nice cool beverage. Whether it’s a tall glass of ice water, a gin and tonic (don’t skimp on the lime and add a few dashes of bitters, please!), a mint julep, a frosty beer, or a tiki drink like the “Tonga Tonga,” there are few better ways to escape the heat and take the time to enjoy life at a slower pace. But what’s the best way to match a drink to the farmers market finds and CSA sausage sizzling away on the grill? Read on for some tips on what’s out there and what to look for.


Just like with food, there are labels to look for when it comes to drinks. Organic labels show up on everything from tea bags, to juices, beer, wine and yes, even the hard stuff like gin, vodka, whiskey and the rest of our distilled friends. When it comes to beverages, you might see three types of organic labels:

  • “100% Organic” has all organic ingredients with no chemically added sulfites.
  • “Organic” has at least 95% organic ingredients with no chemically added sulfites.
  • “Made with Organic [Ingredients]” has at least 70% organic ingredients and may contain chemically added sulfites.

As a reminder, organic ingredients are produced without using synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or chemical food additives. These labels can be used on any type of beverage, but wine has its own labels you might want to be on the lookout for.

Wine Labels: As if these needed more ways to confuse us

What about wine labels that talk about sulfites — are they something to avoid and fear or not? Well, they don’t scare me. Sulfites naturally occur in wine due to yeast metabolizing during fermentation, so you will find them in organic wine. In addition to those natural sulfites, however, some winemakers do add them to wine (which disqualifies that wine from being labeled organic) to halt fermentation at a desired time, and to act as a preservative. Some people try to avoid sulfites in wine because they think it gives them headaches, but there’s no definitive evidence that they’re to blame and other components in wine (like tannins) may be the cause. So it’s up to you whether you want to pay attention to, or ignore, the sulfite label — it doesn’t have much bearing on the family farm-friendliness of that wine.

Spend a little time in the wine section and you’ll probably run across the biodynamic label. Biodynamic wine is made from grapes using a process that Wikipedia defines as “a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system.” Biodynamic wine may or may not be certified organic by USDA, but the Demeter International organization does certify it as biodynamic using its own standards. I don’t really go out of my way to seek out biodynamic wine, but I like the idea of a farm as a unified and individual organism — so hey, why not?

Hopping Organically for Beer

New microbreweries continue to sprout up all over America, which means you can pair a local beer with your local food. Many breweries set themselves apart by using organic ingredients for their organic beer, which is widely available (you may have even had it at a Farm Aid concert!). But there has been controversy in the organic beer community because the big beer companies successfully lobbied to get an exemption so beer labeled organic didn’t require the hops used in brewing that beer to be certified organic. Among the reasoning was that the organic hops on the market were largely from overseas, but now more varieties of organic hops are available all over the U.S. However this ruling was recently changed and, starting January 1, 2013, organic beer must be brewed using organic hops. Until then, if you want truly organic beer, look for one that says “100% organic.”

Good Hard Spirits

The growing interest in the “craft cocktail” movement, which emphasizes quality ingredients and preparation of both classic and new cocktails, is a great place to look for family farmer-friendly beverages. At the right bar or even at home, you can forget about cracking open a fluorescent green bottle of “margarita mix” that’s made with who-knows-what to enjoy drinks with actual real ingredients your grandmother would recognize. Let’s start with the base of those cocktails though: the spirits themselves.

In my very extensive research going up and down liquor store aisles over the years, I’ve definitely noticed fewer organic products in the hard liquor section than for wine and beer. But they are out there, especially for vodka and gin. Once you move beyond those base spirits though, you’ll see that liqueurs and other mixers are even more rare, so you’ll have a challenge mixing up a batch of 100% organic martinis (I’ve never seen organic dry vermouth). Still, you can look for other ways to feel good about drinking the hard stuff.

Many distilleries pride themselves on supporting family farmers from their region when buying the raw ingredients they need, whether it’s corn and barley, or apples and raspberries. And actually, the quantities of those raw ingredients needed to make the final product is pretty astounding: an apple brandy I like uses 20 pounds of apples to make one bottle and an Oregon distillery needs 80 pounds of local raspberries to produce a small 375ml bottle of their eau-de-vie. It helps explain why some of these drinks can be so pricey. It’s nice to know if you look hard enough, you can find tasty drinks from companies doing good things for farmers all over the country. With the craft cocktail movement continuing to grow, more and more distilleries are opening up, making it easier for them (and you) to connect with local farmers.

The Soft Stuff

Sometimes I need a cool beverage without the alcohol. For those times, or when I’m looking for something to mix with my alcoholic beverage, a soda’s fizzy charm can’t be denied. Just like with beer, there are regional and other smaller brands using organic and/or Fair Trade Certified ingredients in their drinks. There was even one vendor at my farmers market last winter selling locally-produced soda. The smaller scale these companies work on allow them to more easily use family farmer ingredients and result in the drinks overall just tasting a lot less “fake.”

Doin’ and Brewin’ It Yourself

Maybe your favorite whiskey brand isn’t organic or maybe a guest left some vodka at your house — you still have options to drink and support family farmers! Here are some tips:

  • Use fresh juice! If you’re not already using fresh juice in your drinks, you’ll be amazed by the difference that such a simple step makes.
  • Use fresh fruit! The most obvious use for fruit is squeezing them for their juice, but you can also just toss a few fresh berries, or slices of peaches, plums or just about anything else in the bottom of your drink, muddle them up, and it’ll taste good.
  • Homemade soda makers are increasingly popular and widely available. Make your own soda from homemade fruit syrups you come up with or brew your own root beer or ginger beer to enjoy them on their own or with your favorite mixer. Homemade tonic water is another fun experiment — you can spice and flavor it however you want — here’s a good recipe to start.
  • In general, distilling your own liquor is illegal at home, but that’s not the case for brewing your own beer. How local or organic your beer is will be totally up to you!
  • Be your own family farmer — grow your own herbs for use in drinks! (Oh, I guess they’ll be handy in cooking too.) Mint’s probably the most common one (what’s a mint julep or mojito without it?), but basil, thyme, rosemary and other herbs can be delicious too. Muddle them, add them to your shaker, or just use them as a garnish to take your drinks to the next level.
  • Other farmers market finds, like cherries can make their way into your drinks, so you can enjoy them long after summer is over. Drop some cherries in a jar, cover with brandy, whiskey, or maraschino liqueur (add some sugar and spices if you feel like it) and they’ll last in the fridge for months (try out this recipe). Your Manhattans will thank you for not using one of those chemical-laden, hyper-colored monstrosities! You can also make syrups from fruit, like rhubarb or raspberries to use in drinks. Infuse vodka or your favorite spirit with fresh fruit (infusion time varies by fruit, from as little as 24 hours or up to a couple months) and you’ll be able to enjoy the taste for months.

With a few peeks at the labels at your liquor store and a little creativity in your kitchen, you’ll be able to proudly raise a toast and honor the hard work of the family farmers who made your beverage as delicious as possible.

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