The story of how Bison Brewing Company’s Dan Del Grande first became interested in organics is not uncommon. An engineer by trade with an MS from Cal-Berkeley, he and his wife began making lifestyle changes in the 1990’s, including buying produce locally from farmers’ markets in addition to other adjustments. As his conservationist efforts grew more serious, however, he realized a more drastic change was necessary. “I wanted to sync my personal life with my business life,” says Del Grande. In 1997 he did just that, becoming Owner and Brewer of Berkeley, California’s Bison Brewing Company.
With initial roots as a brewpub, Bison was founded in 1989, and became USDA certified organic in 2002. With an expensive lease and the large overhead that comes with running such a business, Bison closed the brewpub in 2003 to focus exclusively on distributing its organic beers outside of the San Francisco Bay area. It would prove to be the first of many savvy business moves Del Grande, who has since become a leader in the burgeoning organic beer marketplace, has made. We recently sat down with him to get his thoughts on a variety of topics.
Like any pioneer, Del Grande is not afraid of trying new things. His beer selection includes several eclectic offerings, including a Honey Basil Ale and a Chocolate Stout. Cocoa is an ingredient that surfaces in several of his beers, as evidenced by an invitation to be a featured speaker on that subject at the 2005 Craft Brewers Conference. But ask Del Grande about the benefits of drinking organic versus regular beers, and his true passion quickly comes to the surface. In our conversation, he talked about the need for the beer industry to borrow a page from their winemaking counterparts, who are pursuing sustainability and organic efforts at a much faster pace. As he explains, “Many grape growers are organic, but are not in it to be certified. They do it simply because they believe it’s the right thing to do.” He believes the wine industry can be instructive for brewers, some of whom he believes see organics as a sales opportunity rather than the best way to do business.
For his part, Del Grande does see more farmers going organic as energy programs take hold. According to his figures, if a beer consumer drinks a 12-pack of organic beer per week (a little less than two per day) for an entire year, they are essentially creating the need for 1/8 to 1/10 of organic farming acreage. “Convince nine or ten of your friends to do the same, and that’s an entire acre that can be converted to organic farming. That one acre," says Del Grande, "will produce healthy soil that is good for the overall environment."
While organic farming is clearly his first passion, we also sensed that a true love of beer couldn’t be too far behind. When asked for his favorite beer and food pairing, his response was a slightly more complicated, “Can I give you two?” His first recommended pairing was a Bison IPA with an aged Gouda cheese. “A nice dry, aged gouda goes really well with malt in the beer.” His second was a slightly more unorthodox pairing: mild blue cheese and a Bison Chocolate Stout. Del Grande discovered the match at a recent beer and cheese tasting he attended. "The creaminess from the blue cheese is a nice match for the sweetness in the beer."
As for what’s next for Bison and an eco-conscious entrepreneur like Del Grande, we suspect there will be many new developments to come. While his business keeps him very busy, he continues to maintain eco-friendly lifestyle changes in his personal life as well. After all, we don’t know many brewers who drive a Volkswagen powered by biodiesel, and have built a conservation-minded water grid system for their own home. New green efforts also continue at the brewery. “Carbon neutrality is our current focus,” says Del Grande. Along those lines, plans for a “Drink Neutral” program will soon be announced. Now if only that could neutralize hangovers as well, we’d be all set.