Savvy Sustainable Practices at California's Bison Brewery are as Good as the Chocolate Stout

Bison Brewery /Promo image

Green beer is something dear to our hearts here at TreeHugger. No, not the St. Paddy's Day kind of industrial brew with a few drops of food coloring added, but the sustainably-brewed variety.

What exactly makes a brewery green? Well, it could be argued that all craft beer is green beer, at least when compared to the industrially fermented, straw-colored liquid that is often passed off as beer. But true green breweries take it one step further while walking the green walk.

They develop new energy and water saving processes, seek out the most sustainable ingredients, develop greener packaging and distribute their wares by biodiesel or bike, even if it squeezes their bottom line. When greening their operations craft brewers face specific challenges based on their location and markets. Over the next few weeks we'll take a look at some of our favorites, highlighting their specific solutions to brewing the best and greenest beer possible.

Bison Brewery

One of the most highly touted green craft brewers around is California's Bison Brewery. The online green consumer directory Greenopia gave the brewery a three (out of four) green leaf rating. Greenopia points to Bison's use of organic ingredients, solid environmental reporting and access to a green energy grid as the reasons for their solid showing.

Greenopia rates Bison one green leaf short of perfect because of their use of traditional glass bottles - claiming that "there are greener alternatives" - and the lack of information Bison made available about their transportation initiatives. When Bison co-owner Daniel Del Grande asked them about the knock on bottles, Greenopia responded that they think cans are greener. This rankles Del Grande and he provided evidence in the form of a life cycle analysis suggesting that, if you include mining, glass bottles are less carbon intensive than cans. He says it would make more green sense for consumers to get in the habit of returning reusable bottles to, well, be re-used.

(The green battle between cans and bottles is far from clear cut. Our own Lloyd Alter turns his nose up at cans on their 77th birthday, while our Ask Pablo columnist, Pablo Paster, says cans are greener.)

Bison Brewery /Promo image

Bison's Brews

Bison's year-round beers include an award-winning chocolate stout (6-pack, 22 oz, 92/100 Rate Beer rating), IPA (6-pack, 22 oz, 64 RB), and a Honey Basil Ale (4-pack, RB 62) .

They also brew a Fall Gingerbread Ale (4-pack, RB 76) and two Spring beers: Saison de Wench (4-pack, too new to rate on RB, but brewed with rose petals, hibiscus, lemongrass, and pink peppercorns) and a Belgian brewed with Marmalade (22 oz, RB rating not available). They will also be offering Lust, an Imperial Russian Stout with Coffee Ancho Chile, Chocolate, and Lemon Verbena.

Bison is available in twelve states, but since I haven't convinced Del Grande to export up here to Canada yet I haven't had the chance to taste any of their offerings. Their big seller and award winner is the chocolate stout, here's what DRAFT magazine had to say about it:

This near-black brew sports a feathery tan head and emits a light aroma; faint espresso notes with a chocolate spike give away this beer’s added ingredient. Roasted coffee flavors sink into the tongue first, while chocolate notes emerge as the beer washes back. Roasted and hoppy bitterness scrapes through the mouth, drying out the palate, but leaving behind a lasting suggestion of chocolate. Overall, this beer could benefit from a bit more chocolate flavor, but as it is, the beer’s quaffable and subtle.

The Carbon Footprint of a 6-Pack

When Del Grande bought Bison Brewery in 1997 he knew that he wanted to run the company in line with his personal ethics. The first big leap came in 2002 when he made the brewery organic. But he took an even bigger step in 2009 when he hired ClimatePath to benchmark the brewery's carbon footprint. "You can't fix what you don't understand," says Del Grand. "I wanted to find out where it was worth my time and effort."

Del Grande says the study was well worth the investment, especially since it helped dispel some assumptions he had about what parts of his value chain were the most carbon intensive. The first thing he learned is that transportation isn't that big of a slice of the pie. "I thought it was just going to be tremendous," he says. It turns out that even though Bison beer is distributed in twelve states transportation only accounted for 3% of the carbon footprint of every six-pack.

The end result of the study showed that an average Bison 6-pack is responsible for 6.19 lbs of CO2 emissions.

The Electric Grid Matters

One of the biggest factors revealed in the study was what type of electrical grid powered the brewery. Bison is brewed out of the Mendocino brewery in Ukiah, CA where, according to the Climate Path study, the electric grid is made up of 44% geothermal and 36% hydroelectricity.

To further reduce their energy impact, instead of running a walk-in cooler Del Grande makes a point of keeping inventory lean, using forecasting and just-in-time delivery, to eliminate the need for refrigeration. "Night air floods the warehouse to cool it off, and that cuts way back on our electricity use."

Bison Brewery /Promo image

Organic Beer Saves Farmland

Del Grande helped Mendocino brewery become certified organic and moved in to use their excess capacity when he outgrew his Berkeley-based brewery in 2008.

"Just by choosing organic beer over non-organic beer the average beer drinker can offset approximately a tenth of an acre of farmland [per year] converting it from conventional to organic production," he says. About the size of a suburban lot, Del Grande sees this as a measurable benefit of "drinking organic".

The Final Green Analysis

Along with all the efforts listed above Bison does a little bit more to earn their green cred. Their four and six-pack boxes made from 100% recycled paperboard. For keg deliveries they participate in a one-way keg rental program. Kegs that they ship to other markets get cleaned and reused by breweries in that market.

And finally, Bison encourages their customers to Drink Neutral, just as the owners of Bison do. This consumer program encourages Bison customers to offset their beer drinking in particular and the rest of their lifestyle in general.

I commend Del Grande's decision to study the brewery's carbon footprint to get a realistic sense of where they should focus their greening efforts. Too often assumptions get in the way of making a difference where it matters most. I'll be picking up a big bottle (or two) the next time I'm down south.

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Tags: Beer

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