30 Years and Brewing Just Fine
By Phil Reser
SIERRA NEVADA BREWERY CELEBRATES
story: Phil Reser photos: Brent Van Auken
Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has grown to become one of the most popular and successful craft brewing companies in the United States. The brewery produces almost 700,000 barrels of beer per year, and it operates the Sierra Nevada Taproom and Restaurant on the brewery grounds, which has become renowned as a top live music venue featuring world-class musicians. In addition to its status as an industry-leading craft brewery, the company is known for its innovative approach to manufacturing and its high environmental standards. Founder and owner Ken Grossman says his early inspirations came from brew pioneers Charlie Papazian, Fred Eckhardt, Fritz Maytag and Jack McAuliffe, and that he recently approached all four to collaborate on some special beers to commemorate Sierra’s 30th anniversary on Nov. 15.
"We wanted to pay tribute to the original pioneers who helped me and hundreds of others get started," says Grossman. "Few people in the craft-brewing world have accomplished more than these guys, and we thought it would be fun to get the original crew together and make something special." Grossman learned about home brewing as a young man, using homemade equipment to brew five-gallon batches of beer. After completing his degree in chemistry at Chico State University, he opened The Home Brew Shop in downtown Chico to supply local home brewing folks with equipment, materials and brewing advice.
Two years later, in 1980, he built the first Sierra Nevada Brewing facility from dairy tanks and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries and a soft-drink bottler. Though the equipment was secondhand, he created a first-rate microbrewery, the ingredients were premium, including the copious quantities of hops that would become the brewery’s trademark. Over the next decade, the demand for Sierra Nevada brews exceeded the brewery’s modest brewing capacity and in 1989, they built a new brewery which has become a well-known enterprise on East 20th Avenue, near Highway 99.
Taking an exploratory trip to Germany, Grossman brought back a traditional 100-barrel copper brew house, which became the heart of the new brewery. This met demand for a while, but the brewery soon needed to expand again, and in 1997, Ken commissioned the original coppersmiths to match new kettles to the originals, bringing the brewery’s total capacity to almost 800,000 barrels per year. Thirty years later, Grossman is still involved in every aspect of the Sierra Nevada operation, and he’s still totally committed to quality, premium ingredients and brewing techniques.
“We have one of the longest tracks records of any of the breweries out there,” says Grossman. “We still bottle condition the vast majority of our beer. We still use whole cone hops, and we don’t use any extracts of pellets.”
They have also created Chico Estate Harvest Ale using hops and barley grown on the brewery’s property (an experiment in applying the winemaking concept of terroir to beer), and have plans to use corked bottles for specialty beers.
Agricultural sustainability and environmental stewardship are extremely important to Grossman, and are mainstays of his business. He serves on several river conservation boards and is involved in local environmental organizations.
Other than occasional seasonal specialties, before this year, Sierra Nevada had not added a product to its year-round lineup since 1992; before that, 1980.
This year, the company added two year-round beers to their portfolio: Kellerweis, a Bavarian-style wheat beer with assertive banana and clovey flavors, and Torpedo, an “extra IPA” that Grossman started working on 10 years ago, before the current hoppy trend.
“We were always afraid we’d cannibalize our Pale Ale if we came out with another hoppy pale ale, another India Pale Ale (IPA). We probably debated it for way more years than we should have, and finally decided, ‘Let’s just do it, we’re sort of missing the boat on what the drinkers want,’ ” says Grossman.
Grossman also hooked up with Sam Calagione of the experimental Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales in Delaware to produce two collaborative beers, Life & Limb and Limb & Life.
Additionally, Sierra Nevada formed a partnership with the Trappist-Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux to create a new brand of Belgian-inspired beers called Ovila.
Proceeds from that project will benefit the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in their efforts to rebuild their architectural marvel, a 12th century, early-gothic Cistercian chapter house, on their grounds in Vina, a few miles north of Sierra Nevada’s home in Chico.
In addition to his commercial success over the last 30 years, Grossman has been a significant contributor to his community. He devotes a good deal of his time and resources supporting local organizations, public television and radio, music and the arts, and many civic and community-enhancement organizations.