Meet Delta Beer Lab

Meet Delta Beer Lab

Posted by Hanna Kohn on

On November 16, 2023 I had the opportunity to sit down with Pio (Tim Piotrowski) [he/him] at Delta Beer Lab at 167 E Badger Road in Madison, WI and have a conversation about sustainability. I was joined by Esai Ponce [he/him] from Green Box Compost in Sun Prairie, WI who assisted with the interview and photography. We all hope that by sharing our thoughts in this format that you feel inspired, informed and excited about taking action towards a healthy future for our communities here in Wisconsin and beyond.

-Hanna Kohn (she/her)
Green Life Trading Co.

Hanna: Thanks for agreeing to host us here and be interviewed! Can you please introduce yourself?


Pio: I'm Pio and I'm the Chief Beer Officer at Delta Beer Lab. I've been in the professional brewing industry since 2010 and I worked my way up throughout the industry from putting cans in boxes at Oskar Blues to being an assistant brewer and now head brewer in my home state of Wisconsin. 


H: I noticed, just right off the bat, that in the corner there, can you talk about the display up there a little bit? 

back packing pack with hiking shoes hanging on wall P: Sure. Before I started Delta, I knew that it would be a very long time before I was able to take a fun vacation, and so when I left my job in Minnesota in April of 2017, about twelve days later, I was on the Appalachian Trail. The business plan was written for Delta over the previous couple years and I helped transition the company I was working for into replacing my head brewer position. And I paid off my truck, I minimized my bills and flew down to Georgia to start hiking.

I did the whole trail in 2017. It took 146 days, which is just under 5 months. 6 pairs of shoes,  5 pairs of shoes, something like that. And it's fascinating because I've been backpacking for years and years and years for a week or two weeks at a time, trips to the Boundary Waters, and I quickly learned that what I was doing on the Appalachian trail was not backpacking, but it was long distance hiking. It's not about going to a place for a short period of time where you can carry almost whatever you want. This was an endurance journey where everything you needed to live, you had to carry on your back for five months.  You really have to limit the luxuries to things like a battery charger for your phone so you can take 8,000 pictures like I did. Or, I carried the guidebook for the AT. And that was a place where I could journal and record the starting and stopping places I did every day. Kind of helped create a piece of that historical relevance. So yeah, I learned a lot and I learned about a whole different way to experience an adventure in the natural world.

The Appalachian trail is a green corridor that goes through 13 states. And around you are some of the most populous areas of the country.  But when you're out there, you're on a green path. There's trees and animals and  rivers and streams and lakes all around you. But just over there is New York City. And you're going through areas where Thomas Jefferson walked. It's a unique experience that if somebody has the capability and the time to do it, they definitely should. 


H:  I went to the Smoky Mountains on a backpacking trip with my high school when I was seventeen.  That was really formative for me. We ran into people that were hiking the whole trail. And that was kind of mind blowing to me because I thought we were really doing something crazy: being there for like 5 days. But, we had way too much stuff. Because this was my first ever backpacking trip, I didn't really know what to bring. And so when we’d run into people that were hiking the whole Appalachian Trail, we would  just offload food on them, you know? We were  like, “oh, do you want this, like, hunk of cheese that’s been in my backpack for a couple days?” It really changed my idea of necessity.


P: Yeah, and that is relevant in the day to day lives that we live. When shopping is a part of life, you know? When looking at, “do we need this thing for our house?” The question is, well, it's the question I bring out to my partner a lot is, “ is this a thing we need, or is this a thing we want?” And sometimes you should get things you want. I carried everything I needed to live for five months on my back. I don't need this extra sweatshirt. I don't need this extra set of dishes. You know what I mean? 

But you had brought up the backpack. The backpack and shoes that I took on the trail and the hiking poles are hanging from the ceiling in the taproom right by a map of the Appalachian Trail. And the reason for that is that it's a reminder of a journey, of an experience that had a lot of challenges and tribulations and that with grit and fortitude and a goal in mind, you can continue to work toward and overcome those challenges to achieve the success of the goal that you had set out. There were times where it was extremely cold or painful or tiring and, you know, every day I walk past the backpack and shoes and I see what it means to overcome and to get to that end line. 


H: We were both recently at the Sustain Dane Summit, actually, all three of us were. Diamond Spratling of Girl Plus Environment had us do an exercise where we talked about a personal moment that brought you to care about the environment. Her’s was seeing those “Save the Polar Bear” ads on TV as a kid. What moment did you share? 


P: For me, it probably comes from my childhood where I was involved in Boy Scouts. Boy Scouts was an incredible program for me. It got me outside, it taught me leadership skills and I got to do things with my friends on a regular basis. There were a lot of learning opportunities and a lot of choice within that because the program kind of allowed you to adapt it to your interests. Scouting took me camping a lot and one of the things that I got to experience was the natural world in, you know, maybe a state park setting or maybe a national park setting and I got to live in that environment and have respect and appreciation for those undeveloped areas.

You know, you filter your water, but having a clean, or clean-ish source of water when you're camping is really important. When you're scouting and you're out there, there might be a beautiful lake. Well, if that lake was polluted, the filter that you have along might not be good enough to take out those pollutants.  It's there to make sure that you don't get Giardia from animals, right? Animals and birds. But it's not really intended to get PFAS out of your water or oil from car runoff, or salt from salting roads. So when you go and experience the natural world, it gives you a respect for the water that keeps you alive, the trees that produce oxygen from carbon dioxide, and the whole way that the ecosystem works. That was something that I learned and respected early on. 


H: Do you consider yourself a steward of the natural world?


P: That's a lofty title.


H: I ask because you're talking as if you are one and it's great to hear that you care about the environment so deeply.


P: Yeah, I would call myself a steward but one reason I pause is that for years I've owned a truck.  And I've mostly owned a truck because in the small breweries I've worked in, we had to deliver beer and kegs are heavy, they're big. The companies I worked for didn't necessarily have a delivery vehicle. So if I had one vehicle that could both get me to work or get me to an experience or deliver kegs on occasion, now I have a one stop opportunity.  And now Delta uses that truck all the time for delivery, three days a week. But when I needed to get a personal car for myself again, we looked at electric vehicles, we looked at plug-in hybrids, we looked at less expensive used cars that were conventional. So being a steward is looking at the means that you have at the moment, your goal for stewardship in the long run, and asking “how can I get as far or as close to that goal as I can in this moment?” And for us, it was a 2017 Toyota Prius plugin as a step toward ultimately doing the stewardship that I want to carry out by having an electric vehicle. 

So there can be ways when you, in the natural world or in your day to day life, where you can make decisions both large and small with sustainability or the health of the environment in mind and I try to do that.  


H: Do you consider yourself one? (to Esai)


Esai: Hmm. I think if we're going back to a little bit of what Pio said, having the means, when I have the means to be a steward, I think I try to be, and I try to advocate for the environment.

Obviously, my work advocates for the environment, and as we were talking about a little bit before, we are a company with sustainability as our goal, our end goal. So in many ways, yes. But, I think in other ways I fail to be, you know? And that's everyone, no one's gonna be perfect at it. It's something I haven't really thought about. I advocate for the environment, sure. But am I always living as sustainably as possible? Probably not.


H: I just think it's interesting to hear both of your answers because personally, yes. I definitely  consider myself to be a steward of the environment and I would consider both of you to be in my mind, just considering the work that you do. (To Esai) You were at the Water Steward session with Sustain Dane and I know that that was through work, but it seems to me that you do actionably care about protecting the environment.


E: Yeah.


H: And I think it's mostly setting up the framework of being able to. You can always do more, but to have the mindfulness to do something is really the important part for me. And I don't have the dictionary definition of stewardship in front of me. I'm just riffing on the fact. So sorry to throw that question in there, the whole “do you think you're a steward?” and then putting the mic up in your face.


P: And we both kind of took pause because we might see a steward being John Muir or Aldo Leopold, right? 


E: Yeah.


P: And they probably, also, were not perfect stewards, either. 


H: No, they weren't. 


P: And so everybody shouldn't think, “Oh, unless I do everything right, I can't be a steward.”


E: Yeah.


P:  Because we should welcome everybody into stewardship.


H: Well, I helped write this kind of framework for Green Life in that way where we're not asking for zero waste from anybody, we're asking for lower waste. 


P: Right.


H: You know, the “trash in the jar” kind of thinking? The thinking that you could fit everything, all of your trash from your whole year into a jar. It's just really not feasible for like, 99% of people. So, it’s important to shift thinking about it into a framework that is actually things that you can do to slightly shift your care towards the planet, that sort of stuff. So anyway, let's track into a little bit more specific stuff about Delta. Why do you all use aluminum cans here?  

two people looking up at a large stack of beer cans


P: I actually thought that it was going to be a strategic advantage when we were developing the idea of Delta because in Wisconsin, most of the breweries six or seven years ago were selling their beer in glass bottles. That was the traditional way. Some people think beer tastes better out of a bottle but I had been in California and brewed in Colorado and Minnesota and cans were very popular in those places at the time. And by the time Delta opened, most of the breweries had already made the switch. But from a beer perspective, it's a far superior package. The aluminum can doesn't let any light in and the lightstruck character is also what people call “skunky”. That’s where sunlight especially, but all forms of light, can change the chemicals in hops to mercaptan, which is this the chemical that comes out of a skunk's butt. And so literally if you put your IPA in the sun for five minutes,  it will taste like skunk. And so aluminum cans prevent all of that. Whereas with a glass bottle, the label tries to cover up a bunch of areas, but it still has exposure. The seam on an aluminum can is considered a double seam, the way that the metal wraps around itself and a glass bottle has a cap that has a rubber gasket in it that is supposed to prevent oxygen from getting anywhere near the beer,  but it's not as perfect as an aluminum can. 

But then on the practical side or the environmental side,  aluminum is infinitely recyclable with very low fuel inputs. It's really easy to melt an aluminum can and it takes no additional raw material to produce a can. So you can take a 16 ounce can, melt it down and make a new 16 ounce can. The downside is that bauxite, which is the ore that is turned into aluminum, is really bad for the environment. So when we mine bauxite, there can be a lot of groundwater contamination. It also often involves strip mining. So, it's not great. But if every aluminum can that we use, if every aluminum sheet that we use, was recycled, we would not have to mine nearly as much bauxite as we do, right? 

Whereas glass is made from sand and it takes extreme heat to form it into glass. And then every time you recycle it, it takes extreme heat to melt that glass down and reform it into a bottle again. And right now, the only way that you can do that is with fossil fuels. And so while the mining of the base product for glass is less environmentally harmful, every time it gets recycled it is more harmful to the environment.

So in the long run, if we're looking at sustainability,  it is more sustainable to choose a package that is infinitely recyclable without any additional input. Also, aluminum is a lot lighter than glass and so, when you load up a truck from the factory and ship those packages across the country, you can fit a lot more product and you use less fuel to move it. It uses a whole lot less fuel to ship 12 ounces beer in an aluminum can, versus 12 ounces of beer in a glass bottle. And so, every way you look at it, the aluminum can is a far superior package to the glass bottle, with the exception of mining.  


H: I read this book called, Can I Recycle This? And it's basically a breakdown of modern recycling. And the information in there, at least at the time it was published, was showing the value of glass in the recycling market is almost negative, whereas aluminum value is super high because of what you were just saying. Which I think is interesting to think about, that even if glass is recyclable,  it's not that valuable in terms of the material because it does take all that effort.


P: It actually might take, and I don't know this for sure, but it might take less effort to melt sand and form it into glass the first time. 


H: Right.


P: Because there's so much more surface area to absorb the heat, whereas to melt that glass you have to get to what we'll call “the boiling point” of a solid chunk of glass. 


E: Right.


P: You have to get it down and then reform into that container. 


E: Yeah, that's so many inputs. No one would even really think about it if they're not directly involved in shipping, right? Like, that's not anything I've ever thought about before. 


P: And glass is great! For storage of food and the reusability of it in your house, but in the recycling world it doesn't have as much value, like you said.


H: Yeah, I started thinking about that when I started working at Green Life and after I was introduced to the idea of dehydrated products for cleaning and personal care. And the shipping weight thing was something I never considered previously.  Where it actually does have a huge effect.


P: Right. 


H: When you ship things that are really heavy versus things that are slightly lighter. Yeah, that difference in big quantities makes a lot of difference.


P: Absolutely.


H: So, what are some ways that you encourage people to make sustainable choices when they visit Delta Beer Lab?


P: We have a few key ways. One is that we use PakTec or the four pack carriers that lock in the four cans in a square. We encourage folks, both our retail guests as well as some of our retailers, to save those four pack tops and bring them back to Delta or let us pick them up so that we can wash them and reuse them. Partly it saves money, they cost about 17 cents a piece, but also they're a pretty sturdy plastic and it's so rare that we find a broken one (and when we do, we recycle that one). It’s great that we can wash and reuse this packaging element. Not infinitely, but if that, if that piece of plastic gets used three or four times before it gets recycled and then turned into another plastic product, then we've definitely saved resources from the pollution and waste streams. 

Another way is that we participate in Bicycle Benefits. It's a program that's nationwide and there’s really a lot of focus on it in Madison. And so when folks ride their bike here, and they have their helmet with a Bicycle Benefits sticker on it, or buy one from us, and they get two dollars off each of their first two pints. That program has been going on since we opened and is really successful. 

A couple other ways are that we have really focused our sales effort in the Dane County area and some in Milwaukee, but our reach is hyperlocal at this point. In part, it’s because we want to saturate this market before we add the use of fossil fuels to go further. We don't ever foresee ourselves being a national or regional company because there's great quality local beer in places all over the country. We definitely have aspirations to grow beyond Dane County, but you won't find us all the way across the country because it's not efficient for us to do that. 

We also chose both the equipment that we manufacture on, as well as some of the products that we sell here at Delta because they are as locally sourced as possible. Our brewing equipment was all manufactured in Oconomowoc and Marshfield, Wisconsin by Quality Tank Solutions. And buying Wisconsin equipment was really important because it's a lot of stuff. It's a lot of metal and fabrication. And if it didn't need to go very far, that would be the best possible scenario. 

We're also supporting our local economy. We don't cook any food here, but we offer a whole bunch of food options. We have pizzas from Green Bay and Monona, popcorn from Madison, beef sticks from Wells Farm in Rio and pretzels from Madison. 


E: I have a quick question. When it comes to your employees and people that are interested in working with Delta Beer Lab, they might not know that it's sustainably focused when they join up or when they apply. Do you find mentioning your sustainable focus as a business helps retain employees? Do you find that people are excited that you all are more sustainably focused than, you know, say your regular, run of the mill brewery? Just curious if you've heard any feedback on that, from an employee standpoint. 


P: I think folks that seek out Delta primarily come because we are an LGBTQ+ owned and operated business. They come because we're so involved in community efforts through our Nonprofit Partner Program and through our commitment to 1 % for the Planet.  Folks are attracted to us based on many of our values and maybe sustainability is lower on that list but all of what we do is a Venn diagram that overlaps to make what we call a community. 


glass beakers filled with colorful liquids

 H: Fantastic. Can you talk a little bit about what you do as a brewery to stay low waste or environmentally friendly when it comes to brewing? 


P: First, I'll tell you about a way that we do the opposite. We use reverse osmosis to treat our water. Madison water is very hard and it's very full of a lot of minerals. It’s not amazing to drink straight out of the tap because of that mineral character. It's really rough making beer, coffee, or tea with untreated Madison water. And the reason for this is that the water in Madison is drawn out of a limestone aquifer that's very deep and that water has had a lot of residence time with rocks and dirt and minerals. We do produce a lot of waste water from the reverse osmosis process, but it's one of those choices that we had to make about whether to produce the highest quality beer that we could make or be the most sustainable that we could be. And so that was a choice that we made on the beer quality side. 

But further from that…in a small brewery, a lot of grain comes in 55 pound plastic bags.  It's a woven plastic and  it's really difficult to recycle. We're actually still seeking out  a network in which to actively recycle these bags for all the breweries in the area. Another thing that we did is that we purchased a used grain silo from Lake Louie Brewing when they teamed up with Wisconsin Brewing. And so now the bulk of our malt, which is barley malt, comes on a truck 48, 000 pounds at a time, which we don't get very often, and it's pushed into our silo and then we draw it out of there. So if you take 48, 000 and divide it by 55, I don't know what that number is [it’s 873], but that's how many plastic bags we keep out of the brewing process waste stream every time we have the silo filled, which right now is about twice a year. So it’s a lot of bags. 

We also try to buy as much malt locally as we can. Hops are tough. The best hops in quality come from the Pacific Northwest. We get some Wisconsin hops when we can, depending on the styles we're brewing. We’re also just trying to reduce our packaging wherever we can and buy ingredients more locally if possible. And also managing our heating and cooling In the building so that we're not producing waste.


H: Tell me about farmer Brian.


P: Brian is a gentleman who lives west of town. He has a couple head of cattle and his neighbors nearby also have animals and he works for the City of Madison Water Utility. So he comes to town, generally five days a week, and he has a car, a small truck, and a large truck, and a trailer. So, in that combination of things, he can pick up grain from about ten small breweries in the area. We give him a heads up about how much we're gonna have on what day and he comes in early to do his day job with whatever vehicle is appropriate for the haul that day. And then he makes his rounds to the breweries to pick up the spent grain. And so he uses as little fuel as possible to get maximum efficiency on getting that spent grain back to his farm. And then he feeds it to his animals. He said that it's about 75 to 85 percent of the feed that those cows eat. This is a waste product for us and he can use it as the majority of the diet for his livestock without making an extra trip into town. So it’s efficient in so many ways for the small breweries to minimize waste into a landfill for something that could get otherwise used. 


H: Cool. I can definitely see that model potentially working for more untapped systems in the future. Is there anything that you're looking forward to starting in the near future here at Delta?


P: One thing that we have committed to  is doing more community engagement work. Andrew has a lot of roles, but one of them is to add programs and further develop our nonprofit partner program. We want to connect people with the incredible nonprofits in our area and that's an area that we'll continue to develop. 

But our focus is actually on sustaining our business at this point. We opened just 13 months before the pandemic. There was a very long time where we were not allowed any indoor capacity and that meant that we added debt to our financial structure. With inflation rising and the Federal reserves increasing interest rates, we have a very high interest rate right now. We know that Delta can't do any of the good work that we seek to do if we can't be financially sustainable. We are coming into celebrating our fifth anniversary in February but we’re still bogged down by the pandemic that started about four years before that.

That kind of goes to the stewardship question again. A business or an individual can't necessarily make all the right decisions for sustainability because of financial means. And we find ourselves in that position in some ways. So right now we're doing the things that we're  financially capable of doing. And we want to do more, so we'll just see how 2024 plays out.


H: How can people support you in your vision?


P: Well, obviously, supporting our business is a great way. We host a lot of events for families, for businesses and for non profit organizations in our space because that's another sustainable effort. We have a very large facility. When we're producing beer, we need to use all that warehouse and brewery space for the production of our product. But in the evening and on the weekends, that space is open. It's sitting there. It sometimes takes heat to keep it maintained but it's a space that's available to the community. And so we actually do a lot of business that way, by bringing people together in our space to maximize its usage. 

But furthermore, I think that if folks actively support businesses that do good work in local sourcing, that are members of 1% for the Planet, which is an organization started by Patagonia where businesses commit 1 percent of their revenue, not profit, because we haven't had a profit yet. But since we've opened, we've given 1 percent of our revenue to environmental organizations that are local and fit within water quality resources and climate change mitigation. So we identified a wide variety of organizations locally that we give that money to and there's other organizations that are 1 percent for the planet as well. Folks can sign up for 1% for the Planet as an individual and commit 1 percent of their income to environmental causes. 

Thinking about packaging and minimizing packaging,  buying locally, are all ways that folks can both support Delta's mission, whether it's supporting Delta itself, or other businesses that operate like us.  


H: Cool. And that's especially important right now, around the holidays. Could you talk about the events that you all host here? Or holiday related beers or seasonal festivities you all have? 


P: On the beer side of things, this is a season of darker beers, bigger beers with higher alcohol, and barrel aged beers. So far we've released our Barrel Aged Scotch Ale and Grand Stout, which some people would know as “Imperial” Stout. But with guidance from our friends at Giant Jones Brewing, we've dropped the use of the term, “Imperial” because of the negative effects of imperialism across our history, but also, in our present day and growing, unfortunately.  So we call it Grand Stout. It's a beautiful beer that sat for a year in J. Henry bourbon barrels, and J. Henry is in the Town of Dane


H: I just went there for the first time. 


P: It's so good! The people are amazing. And all these barrels that we use are so local, so we're keeping to our mission in that regard. 

Every year we do a community Thanksgiving meal that's free. We aren't a restaurant, but through our connections and restaurant partners, retail partners that we sell beer to, we produce food for 150 people. As of last year, we filled the place up. It was originally designed  where if you don't have family to go to, or don't want to go to that family for acceptance reasons or any reason, we're a place that you can go. 365 days a year, including Thanksgiving. So people come and enjoy a meal in the community. But we also have folks that don't want to cook, and so they bring nine people. Or we have people that are unhoused that find out about it. And it's a place where they can get a warm meal in a comfortable environment. Folks from all walks of life.  


H: Are there any final thoughts that you want to add, any plugs? 


P: Our business requires consumers out in the market, and what we call guests here in our home space, our tap room. But everybody's a consumer, and so when you look at whether you're a hardcore environmentalist or whether you just have concern about the direction of climate change or with water quality or PFAS, you don't have to be an expert. You don't have to be committed 100%. But if every time you think about it you do it just a little bit more, it can make a huge impact.  For my partner and I, we've talked about it for a while, a little bit more is taking reusable containers to a restaurant when we know we're gonna go to a restaurant because we know we're gonna bring food home. And if we can reduce the amount of disposable packaging we get from local restaurants, it not only will help those restaurants financially but it will reduce overall waste. And that's just a simple thing that anybody can do. And we're not good at it yet, but we just have to say, “we're going to this place, let's grab a couple containers and put them in our reusable tote.” And then go to the restaurant. 


E: I remember the first time I saw someone do that. I was like, “I've never thought about doing that in my life! That's very interesting that you're doing it.” And it is something I should incorporate. I haven't really yet. Also, I don't really leave a lot of leftovers. But even this year I saw someone take a reusable cup to a coffee shop. I was just like, “you can just do that! I don't know why people don't just do that.” Or, I thought, “why hasn't that been something that people think about on the front end?”


P: Right.


E: I’d never thought about it, really. 


H: It's really just the lack of thought, I feel. 


E: Yeah. 


H: And the lack of willingness to think about the systems that you're engaging in. It's kind of a passive choice to think that, “Oh, they'll have cups for me!” Places charge for cups sometimes, but they have to pay for the cups regardless. So that's one way of thinking: “Oh, I'm going to save you the money of having to give me this cup that I'm going to now drink my coffee out of, and then I'm going to throw it away in your trash here.” I was a barista and I thought about this all the time. Where I would give people cups, they would come in every day, and I'd give them a cup, and I'm like, “Doy! Just get a cup and you bring it in.” 


E: (laughs) Right. 


H: You're coming through the drive thru, you're getting your coffee, you could have a little thermos that you just keep in there. There’s all these kinds of levels to it. And I'm not trying to place blame necessarily. Because I think there are actively a lot of things that prevent people from engaging in active environmental thinking. But also the onus is on businesses a little bit to be able to incentivize engaging with the system the way that they want you to. A ten cent own cup discount, or what have you. So all it takes is that little bit of active thought, a spark moment. 

Like the reusable containers at the restaurant. If you've never heard of it before, you might be like, “that's literally crazy!”  But if you started doing it, you might be like, “oh, this makes sense. I am just gonna take this home and then throw away the container.”


P: Right, and Delta is also fairly politically active because I think it's an important area for all citizens to be engaged in, whether you're a corporate citizen or an individual. Our Wisconsin legislature has passed a law that limits the ability of a city to impose a bag ban. No city in Wisconsin can choose to ban Styrofoam containers because our state legislature said that they couldn't. They care about small, local governments up to a point, because the super hyper local governments that want to make differences are not able to do so. And so, just how people vote is an important way to be a steward. Because there's so many facets to how a community is developed and part of that is being able to make choices for your community that move our environment in the right direction and that mitigate climate change on the hyper local level. Because when every little community gets involved, you make a big difference on the global climate, which is the problem at this point. I think voting is a really important component to being a sustainable person and a steward.  That means every election.  Even the little ones, even for the county clerk.  Every election is worth voting in. Vote!

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