Brewer with a Cause
Bison Brewing’s Daniel Del Grande
builds supply and demand for organics
By Derrick Peterman
Daniel Del Grande became a brewer the usual way. An engineer by training but bored with his job, he turned his home brewing hobby into a new career, jumping at the chance to buy Berkeley’s Bison Brewing when it came up for sale in 1997. It’s a typical story that’s been repeated a few thousand times all over the country. But unlike most new breweries, Bison Brewing became a vehicle for creating change, and Del Grande is taking that beyond just the beer.
It started a few years after Del Grande purchased Bison and started playing around with organic ingredients. “I decided to put my money where my mouth was and prove organic beer was just as good as conventional beer.” He actively pursued USDA Organic Certification, becoming one of the nation’s first certified organic breweries. And then he turned evangelist: “Since 2003, it’s been my job to explain to the consumer why organic beer is important.”
What drives Del Grande is the impact organic brewing methods have on the environment. “For every grocery store that sells seven cases of organic beer a week, or a bar that sells one keg of organic beer a week, that creates demand for a farmer to convert a football field of land from normal farming to organic farming,” says Del Grande. That may not seem like much, until you take Del Grande’s figures, couple them with USDA data on fertilizer and pesticide usage in barley farming, and consider slight shifts in organic beer drinking habits. Suppose 1% of California’s 38.8 million residents replaced a non-organic beer with an organic one just twice a month. That would create a conversion of nearly 1,400 acres from non-organic to organic farming. Given typical barley farming fertilizer and pesticide usage, this slight shift in California’s beer consumption would keep over 40 tons of nitrates, 15 tons of phosphates, and nearly 700 pounds of pesticides from polluting the ecosystem.
And this only accounts for the impact from barley conversion. But then, while organic barley malt has long been available to organic brewers, organic hops are a different story. Converting to organic hop farming would mean additional chemicals are removed from the process, the impact of which is difficult to estimate.
“Co-HOPeratives” Demand Organic Hops
Back in 2003, organic hops, if you could find them, looked pretty ragged, were considered low quality, and often had to be flown in from faraway places like New Zealand or England. For these reasons, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) offered organic brewers an exemption from the requirement of using organic hops, deeming them too difficult to obtain. Some brewers still attempted to brew with 100% organic ingredients. Others, like Del Grande, brewed with organic hops when they could find them and non-organic otherwise. But this exemption became a source of friction within the small organic brewing community, and Del Grande found the whole situation dissatisfying.
But then this innovative brewer realized a way to unleash the power of capitalism on the problem. To incentivize organic hop growers to expand their operations, Del Grande deliberately placed purchase orders far larger than he knew the growers could possibly fill, so they could see the amount of money they were leaving on the table. With about a dozen other organic brewers, he developed what he called a “co-hoperative,” pooling their collective resources to purchase organic hops. “Farmers aren’t stupid,” says Del Grande. “They see the demand for organic ingredients and change to meet that demand.” It also helped that more and more consumers were buying organic beer. “Organic hops were basically something that didn’t exist in commercial quantities in 2005,” explains Del Grande. “The last dozen years has seen the birth of a vibrant, growing industry.” In late 2010, the NOSB lifted the hop exemption, and all organic beer brewed after January 1, 2013 requires organic hops to be certified.
More Crayons for Organic Brewers
Organic brewers have always been challenged by having fewer ingredients available to craft their beers. For years, Del Grande explained this using a crayon box analogy. “An organic brewer has long had far fewer crayons in their box to create an organic beer than a regular brewer who has far more ingredients to work with.” Except lately. “I haven’t been using the crayon box analogy in the last six months since it hasn’t been as important as it used to be,” Del Grande admits. With the growth of the organic hop industry, Del Grande figures he can use about half the different hops a non-organic brewer can use, and virtually all the different malts. He’s no longer limited to the typical organic beer lineups dominated by ambers, stouts, and placid IPAs. You can see this in Bison Brewing’s recently released Kermit the Hop and Hop Cuvée IPAs, beers with plenty of vibrant depth and hoppy complexity, which match up to any of the best IPAs of Northern California.
A Different Way to Measure Business Success
In 2010, Bison Brewing also became the nation’s first B Corporation brewery. A B Corp is a company certified to meet high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Some companies spend years trying to achieve B Corp status, but Del Grande found that Bison Brewing was qualified before he even knew the certification existed. “I talked to some B Corp folks who encouraged me to take the online assessment, and without any changes to my business, and right off the bat, Bison Brewing became a B Corp.” While Del Grande understands that being a B Corp is part of his business DNA, he suggests that many businesses may be a lot closer to B Corp status than they realize. “B Corps have over a hundred benchmarks of corporate and social responsibility. Probably a lot of businesses are excelling in maybe 40 of these benchmarks.”
Since 2010, a few other breweries around the nation followed Del Grande’s lead and achieved B Corp status. Most are small, local breweries, although the list also includes New Belgium Brewing, a large company with nationwide distribution. “Some breweries scale and conquer the world by joining forces with the big guys, like Lagunitas’s partnership with Heineken or Golden Road with Budweiser,” explains Del Grande. “The B Corp thing is a lot smaller scale; we use capitalism as a force for good, because ultimately consumers votes with their dollars.”
That’s not to say Del Grande doesn’t have ambitious growth plans. He’s working to open two to three taprooms or organic cafés next year, looking at locations in Berkeley, San Leandro, and Mountain View. He’s optimistic that some day half the breweries in the nation will be organic and 20% of them will be B Corps. “For now, I’m leading the charge, and if people don’t see organic beer or B Corporations, they should ask for them. That’s a message that extends everywhere, not just the East Bay.”
Derrick Peterman enjoys running and also exploring the Bay Area’s great beers and breweries. He writes about beer (mostly) and running (sometimes) on the blog “Ramblings of a Beer Runner” at beer-runner.blogspot.com.