A Push for Purity: The Three Brothers Behind Chicago's LaGrow Organic Beer Co.
Interviewed January 24, 2018 at Bitter Pops Beer Shoppe
Over a decade ago, three brothers from Detroit–Jack, Sam and Jamie LaGrow–made a push to change their lifestyles. After several influencers, and just an overall shift in consciousness to really understand what exactly they were consuming with each meal and beverage, they chose to live 'organically.' And as anyone who has ever read a nutrition panel on any piece of packaging knows, that's easier said than done. And as long-time homebrewers, their passion for pure ingredients soon carried over to their beer-making, and eventually into a full-fledged business.
We recently sat down with the brothers of their namesake LaGrow Organic Beer Co., based on Chicago's North Side, to discuss what exactly drove their business decision, the past and future of beer ingredients, big beer's role in change, and how the misconceptions of the "organic" label can sometimes influence purchase decisions.
So, you are brothers, partners and brewers–and you three started the business together, at the same time, correct?
Sam LaGrow: It was kind of a collective vision.
Jack LaGrow: We started drinking together first...
Well, that's solid research–you gotta know the product right? And you started as homebrewers, correct?
Sam: We pretty much all did it together. We started ramping it up after a while, after meeting in my garage...we were doing it at least once a week.
Jamie LaGrow: It wasn't until we moved out to Chicago, from Michigan, that we really started doing it though. And once Sam got a house here with a garage was when we really started getting serious.
What year was that?
Jamie: The first recipe that we really worked on seriously was this IPA [holding the can]. That was around 2012.
What was that turning point that really made you want to make the jump from homebrewing to becoming a business?
Sam: I think it was the fact that we couldn't find any good...well any...organic beer. And that really what I think changed our focus. We were homebrewing, and brewing great beer. And we see, 'Hey, there're organic beer ingredients. So, why aren't we brewing organic beer?' So we took our first IPA recipe and switched it out with organic ingredients to see how it fared.
That was just out of pure curiosity?
Sam: Well that, and we'd changed our whole lifestyle. At the time, we had started wondering, 'Okay, why is that in our food? This has no place in our food. So why are they putting things on our food that just have no place?' At the time we're thinking, 'Ok, we're using ingredients in our beer that had all the same pesticides and herbicides and synthetic fertilizers... Why are we making beer that way then? Let's just switch these raw ingredients out.' We got rid of all that stuff.
What was it that spawned this organic lifestyle interest and thinking? Was it a specific documentary...?
Jamie: Haha, no it was 40 of them!
Jack: It was so many things. I think it was over a period of time really, you just start changing things, slowly. If you try to do things too fast, it just becomes overwhelming.
Jamie: I think Sam was the fuel-er for the organic stuff, and got our whole family thinking about what exactly we're putting in our bodies.
Sam: I think it starts with just looking at what the ingredients are, and then taking a step back from even that and going, 'What are the ingredients in raw produce, then?' There shouldn't be "ingredients" there. A strawberry should be a strawberry. That's it. But then you see all of the process that goes into actually 'making' a strawberry and realize just how crazy it is. That they're putting all of this 'stuff' on your food.
But to answer your question, I think it might've been from the big push against Monsanto and the RoundUp they put on everything, and pushing the genetically-modified stuff. We don't have to go too far down that road... But to be totally honest, it really started everything. They started suing farmers not accepting their modified seeds. So you have to say to yourself, 'They're trying to push a lot of stuff under the rug. And if they're trying to push stuff under, let's lift it up and really see what all is going on.'
Jamie: That whole thing is a rabbit hole. We could sit here all day and talk about the information that we have gathered from the last 15 years about what exactly is going on.
Sam: One of the most poignant things was...bread. We were trying to convince our mom, "Hey mom, don't buy this bread. Because bread should have four ingredients, right? Flour, yeast, water and maybe some grains. That's what should be in there, nothing much more than that. Take a look at what the packaging says." And even though it's the same bread she's bought for 40 years, and the packaging's the same–what's inside wasn't. It's totally changed. Now, there's 40 ingredients. Half of which you can't even pronounce Why? You don't need that. It doesn't enhance the flavor. All it does is make it last longer, and cheaper to make.
Jamie: None of this stuff is based around your body being the ultimate vessel to consume it. It doesn't benefit you, the end user. It's all about the bottom line. It's never based around your actual health. They don't genetically-modify stuff to make it more healthy for your body...
Sam: It all comes down to money.
Jamie: It's kind of like them saying, "Will you accept that this passes for a strawberry? Yes? Okay, good. They'll take it. Let's move on." And that got into beer for us. We were already brewing beer so we saw it as an obvious move for us, to change over all the ingredients to become organic. But we really had no idea if it would affect the flavor of the beer. We had those thoughts, like, 'Is it going to taste 'Gluten-free-ish?' Is everyone gonna hate it?
Sam: But it wasn't. It was still really good beer, just minus all the crap.
Was part of all this–the new approach to brewing–because you also saw things in the beer making spectrum that was 'too far removed' from qualifying as organic?
Jamie: There just wasn't even an option for us. Like if we wanted to go out and drink an organic beer, it'd have to be Samuel Smith's from the UK.
Jack: There're a few others, but overall it's really just few and far between. There're a few on the East Coast and West Coast. But there was nothing really here in the Midwest.
Quickly define what exactly makes a beer certified organic? Is it mostly organic hops? Malts? Everything?
Sam: In 2013, they changed the law. Prior to that, only 95% of your ingredients needed to be organic to get certified, and the 5% didn't need to be...and that included hops. So before that, you could have hops that weren't actually organic in your organic beer.
That seems like a...fairly major component of the ingredients' composition...
Sam: For sure. Why put anything in it that's not organic, right? That defeats the whole purpose. As a consumer, I wanna know what I'm eating or drinking, so for the definition to be so opaque like that didn't seam right. So after 2013, everything had to be.
Our ingredients are pure, and I think it translates with the taste.
Jamie: The bottom line here is, that after brewing, what goes into that bottle is pure. Now, that makes an assumption about other beers, but, it's true. There's zero particles per million of pesticides in organic beer, and that's really the bottom line.
So how does that compare then, to beers that aren't certified organic. What's the 'downside' to those beers? Because we can't talk about there being health benefits to beer. So why is an 'organic beer' better?
Sam: I personally would want to know that it's pure. Just think, each batch has about 2,000 pounds of grain. So, think about that amount of grain, and how much pesticide, herbicide or synthetic fertilizer is used per acre to make that? And how much of that is left in the beer? It comes down to asking, "Why would you want that in your beer?"
I went to a hop growers convention in Grand Rapids. Hops are an extremely voracious plant–it's a weed. And they grow from the rhizomes, it's not from the seed. If they're left in the soil, you're going to get that hop plant growing again. And you want to get as pure of a hop as you can possibly get, right? So, if you want a Cascade hop or a Galaxy hop, you don't want some other breed getting in there that would change it's profile. One of the speakers at this conference was in from Yakima, and he was talking about in order to switch varieties, they douse the field with RoundUp, "We cover the shit out of those fields with RoundUp, before we plant the next variety." I was just, "Oh my god." That kind of sealed the deal for me right there. If you're trying to do that, to make a buck, what else are you trying to do to make a buck? Because you're trying to make the ingredients do what's best for you, not what's best for the consumer.
Has it been difficult to find producers to meet your guys' needs?
Sam: I think one of the most difficult things is sourcing the hops. Michigan used to be a great state for hop growers. But Prohibition changed all that, and in Wisconsin too. But, it's starting to come back. You're seeing small growers in the Midwest start to pop up that fit the definition. But it's also limiting, because you're not necessarily getting what's new or what's trendy.
And you source from the 'Michigan Organic Farmers Alliance', is that correct?
Jack: Yes. There're actually two organic growers: the Michigan Hop Alliance and the Midwest Organic Hops.
So, you get started as a brewery, and you're initially just brewing and packaging an IPA–at the time, it was in the (former) Aquanaut space. How did you get to that point, going from garage to brewspace?
Sam: We had our own fermenter, we bought our own bottler, we had our own labeler... So, the decision to go into Aquanaut's space was because we started this ourselves, on a shoestring budget. We didn't have the money to go start our own thing right away, and that opportunity presented itself.
Jamie: Yea, we were asking anybody that would let us brew, just trying to figure it all out.
Sam: I don't know if now that it's tougher to be in the Chicago brewing community. But, we found a very welcoming community, and we've been really fortunate–with Hop Butcher and Aquanaut, sharing space. Granted, there was a lot of stuff that went on there, but everyone was really welcoming. I just got an email from the brewer at Half Acre on the way over here; it's a very welcoming community that we are proud to be a part of.
So, have you found it to be a hurdle to lean on such a small amount of SKUs from the get-go? Have you found people asking, 'What other beers do you have?'
Sam: I think that we are excited about getting our own taproom. That will really help us to get our name and our brand out there. These are the kind of beers that we like. We made beers that we like, and we enjoy. It doesn't necessarily mean that everyone's gonna enjoy it, but it's what we like. And as our tastes are expanding, we'd like to expand our lineup as well.
The current beer landscape is very trend-forward–hazy IPAs, etc. How does that notion register with LaGrow?
Sam: New England-style IPAs are definitely the way that everything is going. For better or for worse, and how long will that last, who knows?
Jamie: I think the next trend is going to be more yeast, less liquid [laughing]. Just a sludge!
You're gonna need a spoon for your beer then. Please don't set that trend...'yeast pudding.'
Jack: But no, I don't think we feel the pressure of style trends. There are so many styles we still can touch on–stouts and porters even.
Jamie: I don't think we really have to chase what's trendy, because we're in a little bit of a different situation than a lot of brewers. We're not trying to be a style trend per se, 'organic' is a lifestyle trend. We trying to chase that lifestyle, and give those folks the best beer possible.
So, there's another brewery here in Chicago that claims the organic title: Greenstar Brewing.
Jack: Yea, they were the state's first [organic brewery]. They brew some great stuff in there, they really do. The only thing for them is that they don't package, and everything they make just gets to their two [Uncommon Ground] restaurants. I don't think that there's enough organic breweries to be honest with you.
Sam: I'd like to see everybody be organic.
Why do you think that is? Is it cost-prohibitive?
Sam: It's definitely cost-prohibitive. Our beers are a little bit more expensive. And we're probably making a little less than everyone else, because we're trying to keep the costs down for the end consumer still. I think it does have to do with costs. Everything's more expensive–the hops are roughly triple the cost, the grains are at least double, if not more. And then you have the cost of certification, which is a whole other thing.
How difficult is the process of getting certified organic?
Jamie: It is difficult. They don't give you a template as to how to do it. Once you decide that's your goal, they don't tell you exactly how to go about it. We had to submit a plan proving that our process was organic, not just the ingredients. You do your homework on it, present the plan and it's almost like, "Is this correct? Yes? No?"
How many organic breweries exist in the US?
Jamie: When we started, there were 12. Now, six years later, I would guess it's around 40.
Sam: I think it will only help to have more. For obvious reasons, but it will also help increase overall demand, and then also the supply of ingredients.
Have you found an adverse effect from this? People avoiding your beer because of the 'organic' tag?
Sam: I think yes, definitely. You find people that think it's a gimmick, or think it's just a word attached to the label. Or there's the assumption that it costs more, or even that it doesn't taste good–similar to how people think of gluten-free beers.
Jamie: On the other side of it, there're people who are aware. So, we're seeing them coming over and right away, they're like, "Yep, done."
Sam: We just got into Whole Foods and we're seeing people who just light up, "Oh my god, this is amazing. Where have you guys been? What's taken you so long?"
Jamie: When you're in a Whole Foods, it's a lot different than being in a craft beer store, where they're thinking that maybe organic beers don't taste good. And if you're not there doing the sampling, they have no way of being convinced.
We want to be known as good beer first and foremost. Then, the fact that we are organic is just a bonus.
Do you think there is an overall lack of transparency in what goes into beer?
Sam: I recall an article from a couple years back–The Food Babe, I think it was from–where she challenged breweries to disclose the full ingredients of their beer. I read through that, and it blew my mind. I mean, think about what you drank in college. You'd drink through as much of a 30-pack as you could, you weren't thinking about ingredients and transparency. But then you read something like that and realize how many things were in those beers...or better yet, seeing how many breweries didn't want to disclose what was in their beers. Why?
I think there may be some cognitive dissonance for people, between things that are good for you, and beer. Beer is often the thing that people enjoy as a break from what's healthy. I'm interested in how you try to bridge that gap.
Jamie: People who are more vice-leaning, are more aware of what's in their vice. I was surprised to find out that those people are more aware overall. An example is with smoking–American Spirit did only 2,000 pounds of organic tobacco in 1983. Now, they are over three million pounds of organic tobacco. That's vastly different. Just because that's 'what you do'–smoking–doesn't mean you want to have rat poison in your cigarette. I think it's a similar mentality you can equate to beer. If you accept alcohol, it doesn't equate to mean you also just accept unhealthy ingredients being in your beer...
Jack: Just look at grocery stores and produce. Stores never used to have organic sections. Now, you see stores celebrating it. It was what was offered before these questionable ingredients made their way in, and made everything cheaper and faster to produce. This could be the rebirth of beer, maybe.
Sam: I think another tricky part of it is that when people think of 'organic' they immediately just think: produce. They don't always think into other products, like beer. Beer is still made with ingredients. And it used to just be made with pure ingredients. So, why did all of those chemicals or other things start creeping into beer? Why did beer's purity start fading away? It all comes down to dollars.
Yea, it's interesting to consider. Because, well, much of 'big beer' has roots that are 100+ years old. And it's fair to say their initial concern wasn't about sticking chemicals into their beer, no?
Sam: Well, we'd have to ask them, "When did they start using corn syrup in your beer?"
That's an issue of scale though, right? One of the things that craft beer inherited from big beer was the benefits/problems of scale–like being able to use cheaper ingredients and bringing production costs down for smaller brewers to be able to experiment more. With that said, LaGrow's goal seems to be to go back, before there were these issues, and just make beer the way it was made–with just pure ingredients. You're a truer farm-to-table brewery than most...
Sam: 100%. That's been our tagline, 'farm to bottle.' We're dealing with small-time farmers. So as we grow, they can grow with us, even. It's mutually beneficial.
As a business decision, did people think you were crazy to start LaGrow Beer? Given it's triple the ingredients cost, etc...?
Sam: I think yea, until they try the beer. Number one, I think we have great beer. It's really clean, the finish is clean. It just tastes clean, and I think the pure ingredients shine through.
Jamie: Yes, people still think we're crazy to do this. But, more people are coming around. It's just about planting that seed...
With all this said, then do you find yourselves tip-toeing around other craft beers you'd like to drink, just because they don't fit that organic definition?
Jack: I think you still have to try them, of course. The market's changing so much, you have to try other beers for sure.
Sam: It's not like it's 'us against everybody else.' I don't think a lot of other breweries are intentionally adding things into their ingredients, it's just there. It's already in these ingredients. There are some amazing breweries out there. It'd be silly for us to assume we can't taste their beers.
Jamie: I still drink plenty of other breweries' beers, I just don't do it in excess.
So, what are you drinking when you're not drinking LaGrow Beer?
Sam: I think Hop Butcher is doing such a great job right now. I like to support the guys like us, the local guys. I think Sketchbook [Evanston, IL] is doing a great job. Begyle, Dovetail. But there's some Michigan allegiance, too–I mean, Two Hearted...
Jamie: Two Hearted, that's a favorite.
Jack: Dark Horse is pretty great. I love Short's, too...
Beer aside, one thing that's unique to LaGrow is that you three are brothers. Let's finish by describing that dynamic...
Jamie: I think that each one of us brings a different talent to the table, given the system that we're in–having to brew, package, sell, distribute...
Sam: Going into business with your brothers can be good and bad, right? We've been in business together for a long time, so we've found how good things can work. And we have disagreements, sure, but without the three of us coming from different perspectives, we wouldn't always get to the solutions that we do. As brothers, you get the right to sometimes tell the other off, but then two minutes later you're back to being brothers.