Story and photos by Stacy Fisher
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The story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s modest inception can be traced to one man’s love of bicycles and beer, and to an entrepreneurial spirit that began with a fortuitous right hand turn.
Ken Grossman created his first home brewed beer in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California when he was just 16. After high school graduation in 1972, Ken pedaled his bike 700 miles up the California coastline during a three-week period, then decided to travel inland to the town of Chico. During his brief stay, Ken became enamored with the community and its beautiful surroundings, and decided to make Chico, known for its love of beer and bicycles, his new hometown.
At the age of 21, Ken set up The Home Brew Shop in downtown Chico in 1976 to follow his passion—beer making.
By 1980, Ken had built a small brewery where they brewed 10 barrels of beer per batch, and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. was born. Pale Ale made its appearance in 1981, and became the company’s flagship product. Business increased substantially and the need arose to expand the operation further.
The partners decided to fly to Germany in 1984 to purchase sight unseen two copper kettles that they shipped back to install on a one-acre parcel. By ’89 construction was complete and the two copper vessels formed the heart of the expanded operation, producing 100 barrels per batch.
By 1996, after 16 years of brewing, the operation had seen an increase from 500 barrels of annual production to 250,000 barrels, requiring additional acreage of land to be purchased so construction could begin to build a much larger complex to house the myriad of machinery needed to meet the growing demand.
Sierra Nevada tour supervisor, John Pearson, has been with the company for over three years. He says the brewery is presently producing at maximum capacity of one million barrels of beer annually, or the equivalent of nearly 31 million gallons per year.
“We’re the seventh largest brewery in the US,” John gently boasts, “and the second largest family-run brewery in the country.” The 45-acre Chico-based plant has about 450 employees, plus another 130 in their sales force. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is known for its blend of traditional brewing methods with the progressive use of sophisticated technologies to produce what many consider to be America’s best draft beers. They are extremely passionate about playing to their strengths. “Our brewery is all about quality and innovation,” John remarks. “We use ingredients in their traditional and raw states.”
All of the Sacramento Valley would have to grow nothing but hops just to supply what the brewery needs in one year, John points out. “We use more whole-cone hops than any other brewery on the planet, a million pounds of hops last year alone, which come from our own nine-acre field as well as from Washing-ton and Oregon states and other locations throughout the world, including New Zealand and Europe.” Two million pounds of malted barley are held in six white silos located on-site.
“We might use up to 70 varieties of hops in our various recipes over the course of a year,” John continues. “But just four types make up the bulk of what we use, including Chinook, Crystal, Magnum, and our primary hop called Cascade, the hop that built this brewery.” Pale Ale represents more than half of the company’s product. “We also make another very popular ale called Torpedo, which comprises another 15 percent of our production.”
Although nearly 90 percent of the time the brewery is making ale, significant production time is spent creating lager beers, as well as specialty beers layered with a variety of subtle flavors that are often seasonally produced, or designed for special occasions, for example, using sugar plums and mandarin oranges for their newer Ovila Abbey Ales series. Sierra Nevada brews those Belgian-inspired beers in collaboration with the monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA.
The beer-making process begins with fresh ingredients added to carbon-filtered water derived from deep-well aquifers. In a process called mashing, malted barley is mixed with hot water, which converts the malted barley’s starches into fermentable sugars. At the end of mashing, the liquid is separated from the solids in a vessel called the lauter tun. The liquid—called “wort”—moves to the brew kettle to which hops are added while the wort boils. Eventually the liquid makes its way into the large fermentation tanks visible outside, and they pitch yeast into them, which turns fermentable sugars into primarily alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation takes four to five days to complete.
Sierra Nevada has adopted the use of ‘Irish Moss’ filtration systems, a seaweed derived fining agent used by brewers without the need for less effective traditional filters, as well as centrifuges that spin at 5,000 rpm to remove unwanted particulates to provide unprecedented clarity to their beers.
In the large production room, fifty 800-barrel fermentation tanks hold roughly 26,000 gallons of beer each, with four tanks worth of product shipped out daily. This amounts to generating just under a million bottles every 16 hours, approximately equal to 45,000 cases of beer.
Quality control is continuous at every stage of the process, from hops to bottled product. The fresh ingredients as well as samples from each batch of beer are tested and evaluated using approximately two hundred and ninety tests performed in their onsite lab. A sensory team also tastes the final products to ensure flavor and consistency.
Visitors have a chance to try samples of Pale Ale straight from the spout from one of the huge 30-foot high tanks during guided tours. It doesn’t get any fresher than that!
Because East Coast markets are among the fastest growing in the country, the company is near final construction of a new, state-of-the-art brewery in North Carolina near the town of Mills River to save on the shipping costs of transportation, and to drastically reduce the emissions generated from transporting product 3,000 miles across country. John says they expect the new brewery to open by late 2014.
Over the course of its multi-decade history, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., considered one of the premier craft breweries in the United States, has formulated a vast number of recipes for their beers, with 19 recipes presently available in their spacious restaurant and taproom, including their popular Pale Ale and Torpedo brands. The restaurant features gourmet lunch and dinner dishes, and is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. A gift shop carries a variety of items related to the company’s wares.
From the very beginning, founder and president Ken Grossman, and author of the new book “Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.,” has been focused on consistent quality, states communications manager Ryan Arnold. “And that has been the driving force behind everything we do here. Ken remains hands-on to make sure every beer we produce is exceptional. That has been the spirit of the brewery that we try to convey to our customers.”
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is located at 1075 East 20th Street in Chico, California. General inquires: 530-893-3520; Taproom: 530-345-2739. For tour information, contact the tour desk at 530-899-4776, or send your tour questions to: [email protected]; Company website: www.sierranevada.com.