When Moose Koons offered to buy overripe, misshapen, and undersized fruit from farmers in Palisade, Colorado, their reactions were all the same. “They thought we were nuts!” he recalls.
The tattoo-covered skateboarder-turned-distiller convinced local farmers that the peaches, pears, and apples that supermarkets didn’t want were perfect for distilling into artisan spirits.
Koons, a partner in Colorado-based Peach Street Distillers, admits that buying “seconds” was not part of the original business plan. Instead, he expected to buy prime fruit at market rates.
“When we started the distillery [in 2005] we had no idea there was such an abundance of unwanted fruit,” Koons explains. “We saw an opportunity to use fruit that would otherwise go to waste and do something positive with it.”
In 2014, Peach Street Distillers used 130,000 pounds of over-ripe peaches and 96,000 pounds of pears to produce more than 1,000 cases of fruit-based spirits.
The company is not alone: Artisan spirits producers like Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, and Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, Michigan, also buy fruit that is too flawed to be sold to consumers.
As awareness of food waste grows–Americans throw away 35 million tons of food every year, making it the number one source of solid waste–so do the efforts to reduce that waste.
“Repurposing seconds is wonderful, because, at a bare minimum, it keeps food out of landfill, where it aids climate change by creating methane,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It).
“Farmers don’t like the waste either, but they had no idea what to do with the fruit that the supermarkets wouldn’t take,” Koons explains.
Prior to selling their soon-to-be-discarded produce to artisanal spirits producers for 10 cents per pound, farmers in Colorado were digging pits to bury it or tossing it in the Colorado River to keep it from attracting pests.
Rachel Inman, operations manager at Clear Creek Distillery notes that the practice is nothing new. “Farmers have a long history of distilling fruits like pears and apples because they needed to use it before it went bad,” she explains.
To produce 10,000 cases of artisanal spirits annually, including pear eaux de vie and apple brandy, Clear Creek Distillery partnered with a packing house in the Hood River Valley to buy fruit that is too small or too scarred to be sold in supermarkets. Clear Creek buys upwards of 600,000 pounds of pears a year, using up to 30 pounds of fruit for each bottle.
“It goes from a pear worth two cents to a bottle of spirits that retails for $80,” Inman says. “It’s our way of doing something special with something ordinary.”
While farmers expect a certain percentage of their yield to be graded as seconds, there are often unexpected crop failures that cause additional waste.
For instance, this season, farmers in Colorado’s Grand Valley will struggle to sell their pears through traditional retailers because heavy rains caused scarring on the fruit. When there is too much rain in Oregon, leaving cherries with deep gashes in the flesh, farmers call Clear Creek about selling them the “split fruit” for their cherry liqueur.
“It’s still perfectly good fruit,” Inman says, even though it looks bad.
And there’s another benefit: The more ripe the fruit, the higher the sugar content.
“If we purchased fruit at peak ripeness, we’d have to wait for it to continue ripening–past the point when supermarkets would take it–because higher sugar content produces better spirits,” Koons explains.
Sometimes, sourcing overripe, undersized fruits is not an option for distillers. For instance, Clear Creek distills spirits from popular fruits like loganberries and Mirabel plums, which, thanks to high demand and limited supplies, are almost never available as seconds. “We’re paying top dollar for fruit that could be going to the supermarket,” Inman says.
Bloom is optimistic that the trend of distilling seconds could take off.
“I just hope that the distillers are transparent about the origins of their product to continue the surge of interest in ‘imperfect’ items,” he says. “While it may not help the hungry, distilling with ‘seconds’ sure could aid the thirsty!”
At Peach Street Distillers, Koons is happy to spread the gospel to all who come through the tasting room doors. “It’s so cool that we can use something that would have been thrown away and do something great with it,” he says. “We’re really proud of that.”