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Photos courtesy Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

by Gregory Daurer on October 17, 2019, 08:09 am MDT

www.sierranevada.com

Chico, California

Founded: 1980

Privately owned

Employees: 1,152

Industry: Brewing & Distilling

Products: Beer

Founder Ken Grossman has overseen the growth of a scrappy California startup into one of the most successful national brands in American craft brewing. 

Officially underway in 2020, the 40th anniversary of Sierra Nevada calls for a celebration. And Grossman has a long-running, aptly-titled beer for the occasion: Sierra Nevada's Celebration IPA, which has been made since 1981. The beer is fresh-hopped with Cascade, Centennial and Chinook varieties.

How popular were Centennial hops in 1981 when Sierra Nevada began brewing that beer?

"Not at all," replies Grossman, 65. "We put them in our Celebration Ale in '81, and they were called the Super Cascade, back then. They were a very new entry into the American breeding program. No, they were an unknown hop in the late '70s, early '80s."

And how popular were Cascade hops when Grossman began using their fresh cones within its flagship Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 1980? 

"Not [popular]," he says. "They couldn't find a home. Oregon State [University] had developed the variety. All the large brewers thought they were too aromatic and floral, and pine and citrus. They didn't remind them of the hops they were used to from Germany, so they couldn't find much of a support until craft brewing came in."

Thanks in no small part to Sierra Nevada, craft brewing -- and especially, early, hop-centric brands such as itself -- most definitely did come to fruition. It is one of only two remaining breweries (the other being Boulder Beer) who were at the very first Great American Beer Festival (GABF). And between 1987 and 2014, the brewery medaled 31 times at the GABF. 

Over the past four decades, Sierra Nevada become a national brand, leading to the opening of a second production brewery in 2014 in Mills River, North Carolina, in order to supply East Coast markets. The move also aligns with its reputation for being a sustainably-minded company by reducing its carbon footprint. 

Back in the beginning, Grossman opened his 10-barrel brewery in Chico using a brewing equipment that he made himself. "The kettle was an old steam pot I picked up in a scrap yard. The cone on top was actually a fruit hopper that I chopped the legs off, turned it upside down and made it into the cone top." 

He adds, "None of us in that early generation could afford to buy anything out of Europe, so pretty much it was all cobbled together from old dairy [equipment]. . . . The whirlpool I welded all myself, I put it together from parts and pieces. I took a welding class, so I could figure out how to weld." 

With wheels welded onto it, the original brewhouse made its inaugural road trip to the 2019 GABF, where it was on display. Grossman plans to travel with it in 2020 to various locales, where he'll use his old equipment to collaborate with other breweries, or perhaps he'll give the wort away to local homebrewers.

Before starting Sierra Nevada, Grossman operated a homebrew equipment supply store. (It's worth noting that homebrewing wasn't legalized nationally until 1978, and Grossman had opened his shop in 1976). In Northern California, Anchor Brewing in San Francisco was a huge influence, but it was founded in the previous century. It was Jack McAuliffe's New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma that gave Grossman the inspiration to start his own brewery. Grossman remembers thinking, "'What he's doing isn't any different than what I'm doing at home.' I had a pretty sophisticated home brewery. So, if he could do a commercial brewery, I could do that."

Today -- with 200-barrel systems in place in both Chico, California and Mills River, North Carolina -- Sierra Nevada is positioned as the third top-selling craft brewery in the United States, according to 2018 statistics published by the Brewers Association, when the Chico brewery produced 550,000 barrels. (Although less than a decade ago, it was in the second slot.) In 2017, Forbes listed Grossman as having reached billionaire status off of beer. 

It's not about quantity alone: Especially in its initial decades, Grossman's brewery pushed boundaries and innovated within the brewing space. How important was bottle conditioning to Sierra Nevada early on? "It was part of our DNA," says Grossman. "The Pale Ale was a pioneer. It's probably one of the largest[-selling] bottle conditioned beers in the world, still."

Sierra Nevada also began utilizing an upright cylindrical piece of equipment it calls the Hop Torpedo. Grossman says, "It was something we created. So, those were packed full of fresh cone hops. As the beer ages, we circulate beer through it to infuse fresh hop aroma. . . . We've been dry-hopping since 1981." The Hop Torpedo has resulted in beers like Torpedo Extra IPA and the recently-released Tropical Tornado.

In 1983, it unleashed its gnarly barleywine, Bigfoot, with its 9.6 percent alcohol by volume and 90 bittering units. But there have also been easier-drinking releases likes its Oktoberfest (brewed for the past five years in collaboration with a different brewery, most recently with Germany's Bitburger). And, then, there's also Narwhal Imperial Stout, Summerfest, Hop Bullet, the brewery's Estate Ale (using its estate-grown malt and Saaz hops, as well as Chico wild yeast), and Hazy Little Thing IPA.

How does Sierra Nevada continue to keep things fresh and new?

"We're always innovating," says Grossman. (Sierra Nevada's Hop Hunter, for example, results from "an all-new method of steam distilling wet hops before they even leave the fields," according to the brewery's website.) "We've got a bunch of brewers who do R&D all the time. We meet weekly and talk about what's on the horizon, what we should be working on. I'm involved in those meetings, every week." 

He also dialogues with his daughter, Sierra, who works at the Chico brewery and his son, Brian, who oversees the North Carolina operation. On the brewery's website, it says, "We are 100 percent family owned, operated, and argued over."

However, it doesn't sound like there's excessive tension at family gatherings -- say, at Thanksgiving dinners -- involving the three Grossmans. "We have a lot in common," says dad Ken. "We talk about beer a lot."

Favorite beers: "I still migrate to hoppy stuff," Grossman says. "I wouldn't say I have a favorite beer. But I drink a lot of different beers around the country, and the quality and level of brewing has certainly increased significantly over the 40 years I've been around. And there's a lot of great beers out there today."

When Grossman is informed that two separate brewers -- one of them being Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co. -- have told this writer that they always have Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in their refrigerators, he responds, "And I've got Vinnie's beer in my refrigerator as well! We're good friends."  

Challenges: Grossman says it's "finding your place and niche in the market, competing against international brewers. It used to be we competed against the domestic big brewers; now we're competing against international brewers who own craft breweries and domestic breweries."

And how has the company been able to avoid being purchased by a larger company? "We're privately owned, so we're not forced to do anything we don't want to do. We've had opportunities, but we decided we wanted to stay independent."

Opportunities: "It's always been how do you stay relevant with the consumer," says Grossman. "I think just trying to figure out how to stay in sync with the sensibilities about the beverages and the foods they consume. So, just trying to make sure you're there [meeting] consumer need."  

Needs: Grossman is a realist about changing tastes -- even if those tastes do happen to be, well, unsophisticated: "There's still people who love hoppy, traditional beers, but there's certainly a growing trend for lower carb, lower alcohol. A certain percentage of drinkers don't want anything more than a little bit of flavor and a little bit of buzz, and aren't so much into the tradition of brewing. So I think we've got to understand that segment of the industry as it changes."

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