The Case for Organic Beer

By Dave Soref

Whether it’s at Whole Foods, Safeway or your local co-op, you’ve probably noticed a nice steady increase of micro-brewed beers in the cold case. Increasingly these brews are made with locally grown grains and botanicals. Yet you might find the dearth of organic suds options surprising. Where’s the organic beer?

As luck would have it, one of the nation’s certified organic breweries, Bison Brewing, is a bike ride across town for me; I was on the case (no pun intended) to find out why organic beer isn’t more common. Owner and veteran brewmaster Daniel Del Grande agreed to meet with me and talk organic suds.

Why Organic Beer?

As Del Grande and I get comfortable on couches in the company’s West Berkeley offices for our interview, I don’t object when he lines up four bottles, two glasses, and begins to pour.

We start with the lightest-colored beer in the bunch, the Honey Basil, whose two signature flavors, sweet and savory, complement each other well. I say this to Del Grande and he uses the mention of honey to start talking about the peril that world honeybee populations are in, the encroaching risks of genetically modified crops, and why going organic is the easiest way to help. “Organic standards nationwide exclude all GMO products. That’s important, and it’s my job to get the message out there.”

And he’s done a good job. Del Grande had the brand certified organic in 2003, early days in the organic beer world. “From a marketing perspective it may have been a little too soon, but it was a personal choice—I ate organic at home, and it didn’t seem logical to brew with different standards,” he relates. His foray into creating a certified organic beer showed other brewers and consumers that it could be done.

Del Grande says he isn’t sure why the demand for organic beer has been slow to take off. “Maybe many consumers think organic is more about health and well-being and that beer isn’t a health food, but to me organics is more about pesticide runoff and worker exposure to chemicals.”

And why is this so important?

“If one consumer replaces one six-pack a week for a year with organic beer, that will cause a farmer to convert 1,500 to 1,800 square feet of land to organic to satisfy that demand. If a restaurant chooses to put up one keg of organic beer per week, that will cause a farmer to convert a football-field-sized piece of land to organic,” Del Grande explains. More organic fields mean less pesticides and GMOs in the ecosystem. “These are the kinds of impacts people can have simply by choosing organic.”

Hopping to Local Organic

A current challenge for organic brewers is sourcing ingredients, such as hops. Del Grande pours us each a glass of Bison’s Hop Cuvée as he describes how he found the ultimate solution to sourcing local and organic hops. “We planted Cascade hops in six gardens in and around Oakland as a project two years ago,” Del Grande recounts. “They grew, we harvested them, and that first year we made about 40 kegs’ worth of beer called Oakland Hops Harvest that’s available at local bars. This year we made about eighty kegs’ worth of beer. And next year we could have so many hops that we might be able to make a hundred kegs of beer and a hundred cases of beer.”

To grow the hops, Bison works with a woman named Victory Lee, who runs community gardens and teaches inner-city residents to grow their own food. “Thanks to Victory Lee and her efforts, we put up hops in her gardens, helped spread her message to our beer drinkers, and got some of them to take her classes on urban gardening and donate a little bit of money. We’re going to keep it local for now and use the proceeds to support that mission.”

Until demand for organic beer grows, the variety of organic grains remains limited. “When I went organic, there were maybe a dozen hop varieties available organically,” Del Grande remembers. “Today there are still not many, maybe three dozen, but all of those new hops have come out because American craft brewers, me included, have petitioned, asked, begged, pleaded, with our hop growers to grow these hops for us.”

B Corp Brewing

To further his goal of sustainability, in 2010 Del Grande made Bison Brewing the first ever Certified B Corporation brewery. “Being a B Corp means that your business decisions can be based on sustainability instead of maximizing profits.” For example, Del Grande explains, instead of buying the cheapest business cards you can, you opt for ones printed with soy ink on recycled paper. “The B Corp is not a seal that people recognize and approve of yet,” Del Grande acknowledges, but he expects its popularity to grow as people learn more about it.

Our beer tasting concludes with a Chocolate Stout, which is Bison’s longest-running, and best-selling, brew. It has a pleasant malty taste, chocolaty without being sweet, and after one glass I think I’m hooked.

Del Grande sips and reflects on the organic and micro-brew movement he’s been a pivotal part of. “When I started out, there were just a handful of craft brewers in the Bay Area and we all knew each other. We would hang out together and make fun of each other’s beers; there was a collegial attitude. Now there are so many brewers I don’t have time to get to know them or taste their beers. It’s a much different business, and it’s been fun watching it get big.”

In 2014, Del Grande says, a milestone was reached. “All craft brewers aggregated together sold more beer than Budweiser. Even though that’s 3,200 brewers versus one, it shows that consumers are not just drinking fizzy yellow water anymore; 3,200 small craft local brewers are now being supported where none were before.” If Del Grande has it his way, that market share will continue to grow, and the organic beer movement will grow right along with it.

Learn more about Bison Brewing at bisonbrew.com