Talking Beer with Sierra Nevada Founder Ken Grossman

Drink Features Sierra Nevada

Let’s play a game where you try to imagine the American craft beer scene without Sierra Nevada. Like, the company never existed. Just try it. No Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. No Torpedo. No Celebration. Depressed yet? It’s almost impossible to picture the beer landscape in this country without Sierra Nevada, which has been a veritable institution in American beer for the last three decades. This Chico, California-based brewery helped push hops on the American public with their Pale Ale, literally helping to refine our taste buds.

Sierra Nevada has grown into one of the largest breweries in the country, and yet still manages to maintain its street cred through constant experimentation and collaboration with smaller breweries. That sense of whimsical collaboration will manifest itself this summer with Beer Camp Across America, a roving beer festival with seven stops across the country. Sierra Nevada invited every brewery in America to attend the fest, and a bunch of them responded, so each stop will be stacked with local beers big and small. The brewery also produced a 12-pack of collaboration beers to honor the current state of craft beer in the U.S.

Beer Camp Across America kicks off in Chico on July 19 and finishes at Sierra Nevada’s new brewery in Mills River on August 3. We recently talked with Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada, about what promises to be the country’s biggest beer festival ever. We also get Grossman to dish on how he once tried to make hooch out of grape juice, the future of beer, and why he’s so nice to his competitors.

Paste: Beer Camp Across America is a pretty wild idea.
Ken Grossman: It’s been a wild ride for us. When I started brewing 35 years ago, there were only 40 breweries in U.S. We were one of the smallest. We’ve seen so much excitement and growth and appreciation of great beer, what better way to celebrate our success and the success of craft beer, than a great big road trip?

Paste: What’s with all the collaboration? I can’t think of any other industry where competitors work together like this.
K.G.: I don’t know if there are other industries that do this sort of collaboration…certainly not to this degree. Brewing is an art and science. Having your peers come over and work with you on a project is a lot of fun. We’ve done a number of them over the years. For Beer Camp, we invited a dozen brewers to participate. In most cases, the collaborators drove the bus in what they wanted to brew.

On one hand, we are friends with these folks, but we all compete for market space. It’s also good business. It allows our customers to overlap. If you’re a Bell’s customer, and you don’t drink Sierra Nevada, a collaboration brew allows you to sample our beer without much risk.

Paste: Do you have a favorite in the Beer Camp collaboration 12 pack?
K.G.: It’s a wild 1 2 pack. Part of my evening last night was spent sampling all the beers. There’s big variety in that 12 pack. They’re all different. I don’t have a favorite. The one with Russian River is a fairly dry pale ale, the one with Allagash is a Belgian yeast pale ale, the one with Bell’s is a hearty black lager…

Paste: When you create such a varied product like this 12 pack, does it get you excited about what breweries will be producing in the near future?
K.G.: The trends in beer have lately been focused on hoppy, more intense IPAs, although there are a lot of other styles gaining popularity. Sour beers, barrel aged… In the future, hops will still be where people focus. We were one of the first breweries to come out with hoppy IPAs. Today, it’s gone a couple notches above that with double IPAs. I also think you’ll also see a continuation of this trend of fairly hoppy, lower alcohol, aromatic IPAs.

Paste: I understand you started brewing and distilling at a really young age.
K.G.: When I was a kid, I snuck some grape juice out of the refrigerator at my mom’s house, got some yeast and put it in a gallon jug in my closet. I was 14 at that time. It didn’t taste that good. I started brewing beer at 15. I had a neighbor who was accomplished brewer and winemaker and I was always at his house learning.

Paste: What drew you to brewing at such a young age?
K.G.: The whole alchemy of turning a bunch of ingredients into something that smells and tastes wonderful. That’s still what drives me. I like brewing, I like the whole process. The combination of science and art is still fascinating.

Paste: Beer Camp ends at the new brewery in North Carolina. What can we expect from the new site?
K.G.: On August 3, the last of the seven Beer Camp festivals will held here at the North Carolina site. There’s still a lot of work to do on the site, but we’ll started limited tours that week, and by September, we’ll have a more complete tour program. By the end of the year, we should have the restaurant opened. We’re buying another 25 acres, to add to our 185 acres right now. We’ll develop some mountain bike and hiking trails, an outdoor music venue, trails down to the river, then we have longer term plans to do some sort of river access and beer garden.

Paste: Sierra Nevada produces a million barrels of beer a year. Where do you go from here?
K.G.: We’ll continue to grow at a moderate clip. The second brewery was designed to take the pressure off Chico. I originally designed the brewery in Chico for 60,000 barrels. We expanded the Chico brewery beyond its limits. We’ve been running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Having this new brewery will allow us to slow down and do more fun beers. We’re doing a lot more with barrel aging. We also have a 15-gallon nano brewery, and another 10-barrel brewery. We’re looking forward to doing a lot of experimentation.

Paste: Will you be attending any of the Beer Camp festivals?
K.G.: I’m on the bus the whole time. It’ll be tough for me to be gone from the breweries, but I’m sure it will be a blast.

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