Bison Brew: Save the Planet, Drink Green Beer

Top 10 Craft Beer Cities

More and more breweries are going green. When that sometimes mean choosing cleaner ingredients or switching to sustainable practices, for Bison Brew in Berkeley, California, it meant taking things a step further.

The brewery, founded in 1989, is one of the few certified organic, non-GMO breweries in the country. We talked to Daniel Del Grande, Chief Hop-erations Officer at Bison Brewery, to find out how they’re paving the way to greener beer.

QUESTION: You are a certified organic, non-GMO brewery. Can you tell us a bit about what it took to achieve that and why you decided it was an important thing to pursue?

DG: I became a professional brewer in 1997. In 2002, I was so delighted to find organic barley becoming available for craft brewers that I decided to sync my artisan business with my personal food practices. Over the next year, I converted my entire business to be certified organic and GMO-free. Since that day, the hardest thing is to educate people – very busy people – that organic beer is a “thing” that they should pay attention to. It is an important, and easy decision, once you get your head around it.

I found out that barley is the predominant environmental impact of organic beer; a consumer who switches to buying one 6-pack a week of organic beer causes demand for a farmer to convert about 1700 square feet of land to organic agriculture…..THAT is as big as many American homes!!

Hops, however, took another ten years to become widely available. In the meantime, my business thrived as I learned to brew beers like chocolate stout and honey basil and gingerbread ale, which don’t use very much in the way of hops. It turns out that most consumers don’t like bitter beers. With the 2013 crop year, I was able to make a very hoppy brew – Kermit the Hop – which is the first double IPA I’d made since 2003; its got all the hop flavor and bitterness a hop head deserves, and the environmental impact mother earth deserves!

QUESTION: In addition to organic ingredients, you also focus packaging and production methods to ensure your company stays as green as possible. Can you share a bit about this and the steps you’re taking to reducing your impact on the planet?

DG: As a manufacturer, we are very mindful of our impact on the environment. We did a carbon footprint study in 2009 to understand our largest contributors to our carbon footprint. Turns out we have made pretty good decisions. For our operation, because of our decisions, the largest input was glass bottles, the second input was the growing of grain and malting the barley, and the third was the paper and cardboard. By choosing organic malt (plus, we use a malt supplier that is located in an electric grid that uses a relatively high amount of renewable hydro energy) we have minimized our carbon input here. The other alternative is to not produce. Similarly, our brewery grid uses a lot of hydro and geothermal energy, and the brewery has its on-site waste treatment system, so we minimize the carbon impact of energy use and minimize water use (especially since we have to treat all the wastewater!).

One thing that surprises most people is that transportation of the beer to your local market is less than 5% of the total carbon footprint of a 6-pack of beer. It is important to focus on what matters.

So, please, excuse a rant here, but cans are a terrible thing in the craft beer industry. Cans are not environmentally sustainable due to open pit mining. Period. Aluminum is made from bauxite, primarily in open pit mining operations that remove the topsoil and burn the forest lands they stripped away to get at blanket layers of bauxite. The USA imports virtually all of its bauxite from Australia, Vietnam, Brazil, Guinea, and Jamaica. Long after the can is recycled, the scar of open pit mining remains, habitat is destroyed forever, and water pollution from leaching tailings and plain old soil erosion degrade fisheries downstream.

QUESTION: You produce some unique mixes, including a chocolate stout and a honey basil beer. How do you decide what ingredients to use (and which ones work well together)?

DG: As I mentioned before, I perfected brewing beers without hops as the signature, because hops were in short supply, varied quality, and expensive! Today these beers seem unique, but they were born out of necessity to stick to my organic beliefs yet still produce beautifully balanced beers. You can cover up a lot of mistakes with a heavy hand of hops.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a bit about your one-off kegs? How do you choose their names and what type of brewing recipes to use? Can you mention some of them?

DG: Like any artist, I like to have fun with my one off beers. I usually get inspired by something and think “I can brew that. I’ll just do this, that, and this.” I Recently did a beer where I was inspired by a Reuben sandwich, so named the beer red Reuben, brewed with caraway seed and rye malt. It was a fun project. Another beer I occasionally do Barry Whites Voice in a Barrel, is inspired by the smooth seductive tones of the musician, so I use my low alcohol chocolate stout beer and put it into bourbon barrels — it won’t leave you too full and is very easy to drink!

Diana Bocco is a writer and author who writes for Yahoo!, the Discovery Channel website, Marie Claire, Poplar Mechanics, and more. You can find more about her work on her website

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