Under Pressure, Yet Columbia Gorge Strides Forward

Columbia Gorge OrganicAs Columbia Gorge Organic approaches the start of its third decade on the market, the brand, one of a handful to pioneer the super-premium juice category, is nevertheless endeavoring to keep up with a rapidly evolving market for high-end bottled juice.

Launched in 1994, Columbia Gorge Organic is owned by the Stewart family, which has resided and farmed in Oregon’s Hood River Valley for nearly 40 years. The family owns and maintains 180 acres of organic farmland, which is used to source much of the produce used in its juices. With distribution in 15 states, the brand has achieved gross revenue of $10-13 million for each of the last 3-4 years, according to company president Jimmy Stewart.

Despite robust sales and distribution, and while it operates within a burgeoning market for super-premium juice and organic beverages, Columbia Gorge is constantly facing a range of threats to its position on the shelf. In a wide-ranging interview with BevNET, Stewart discussed some of most pressing concerns facing Columbia Gorge, and the company’s approach and strategy to confronting each.

Perhaps the most challenging issue affecting Columbia Gorge, Stewart said, is in having to justify why the company hasn’t made a transition from pasteurization to high pressure processing (HPP).

Its critics point out that the category is in the midst of a swift evolution in which HPP, which uses pressure instead of heat to inhibit bacteria growth in raw products, has been embraced by brands like Evolution Fresh, Blueprint and Suja, all of which have found admirers in natural retailers and consumers and opened the door to a wave of new and upstart juice brands.

Cogo Green Apple GreensTo be clear, Columbia Gorge is not against the use of HPP, Stewart said. The company has experimented with the processing method, and last year began using HPP for some of its juice blends, having found that HPP provides a higher retention of flavor for its Green Apple Greens, Lemon Ginger Greens and Kale Apple Lemon juices than pasteurization.

However, Stewart said that the company has conducted other experiments in which it compared the flavor and nutritional value of a juice in a raw state to that of the juice after it has undergone HPP. The company conducted the same experiment using flash pasteurization. In nearly every case, the pasteurized juice was superior the HPP in both flavor and nutrient retention, he said.

As a result, Stewart and his family, who are the primary owners of Columbia Gorge, are convinced and steadfast in their belief that pasteurized juices often have a leg up in terms of flavor and nutrition as compared to their HPP counterparts, and are increasingly disturbed by consumer education and marketing that suggests otherwise. He noted that the wave of information and advertising that promotes HPP has had a “direct impact” on sales of Columbia Gorge juices.

“We want to set the record straight,” he said.

Stewart believes that some nutritional marketing claims by HPP juice brands could elicit a host of class-action lawsuits (in the past six months,  Blueprint and Suja have each found themselves on the receiving end of one), however, he said that he’ll stay out of a potential legal battle. Instead, Columbia Gorge will attempt to educate its consumers — and the trade — about what Stewart views as wrong and misleading statements about the benefits of HPP versus pasteurization.

It’s not just the marketing of HPP juices that concerns Stewart. While Columbia Gorge uses much of its own fruit — the company grows apples pears, cherries and peaches — it also sources produce from organic farms in Oregon, Washington and California. Though the company has cultivated longstanding ties with its farmer-partners, Stewart remains apprehensive about supply, with his worries rooted in the growth of companies like Suja and Blueprint, which he said are “trying to buy all the ingredients up.”

“We have our relationships with our farmers… we’ve fought for them for years,” Stewart said. “Over all these years, I knew that there was a storm coming of other juice brands trying to get into this [category], and that the number one thing for our survival is to maintain that relationship with our farmers and make sure that we have the ingredients when we need them.”

Stable and consistent lines of supply are critical for a super-premium juice brand; perhaps just as important is reliable distribution, something that Columbia Gorge has had certainly had its issues with in recent years.