Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s Ken Grossman
Ale to the Chief
By Jon Lewis
Photos courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
It’s a rags-to-riches story that would make Horatio Alger blush: Ken Grossman, an avid hiker and cyclist who enjoyed brewing his own beer in his adopted hometown of Chico, cobbled together some meager finances, repurposed some stainless steel tanks salvaged from a dairy and launched the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
It was 1980 and, outside a few circles of dedicated homebrewers, handcrafted beer wasn’t a “thing.” There were fewer than 50 independent breweries in the country at the time and they tended to emulate the corporate behemoths and their homogenous lagers that populated supermarket shelves and were the subject of huge advertising campaigns (i.e. Clydesdales).
Grossman’s first offering from that 10-barrel system was an American stout, which Sierra Nevada continues to produce today, but next in line was Pale Ale, the beer that introduced the aromatic world of whole-cone Cascade hops and revolutionized the craft beer industry.
From that humble beginning 36 years ago, Sierra Nevada has grown in dramatic leaps to become the country’s third-largest craft brewery and an industry leader in sustainable practices. The Chico facility now has both a 100-barrel and a 200-barrel system. (A barrel equals two 15.5-gallon kegs.)
Grossman, 62, did not single-handedly invent craft brewing — fellow pioneers include Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Charlie Papazian and Fred Eckhardt — nor is he seeking credit for it, but within the industry his signature Pale Ale is credited with creating a market for hop-forward ales. Tony Magee, the founder of Lagunitas Brewing Co., says Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is the beer that prompted him to become a brewer.
The tidal wave that Grossman helped launch continues to roll, with craft beer accounting for 12 percent of the $105.9 billion in U.S. beer sales in 2015, notes the Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group. There were 4,269 craft brewers in that year that produced 24 million barrels of beer.
California, not surprisingly, leads the nation in craft breweries with 518 (up from 270 breweries in 2011). Craft brewers in the Golden State produced 3.8 million barrels in 2015, or enough for 4.3 gallons for every adult of drinking age.
Pale Ale continues as Sierra Nevada’s flagship beer and it accounts for half — or about 425,000 barrels—of the Chico brewery’s production. Other styles include Torpedo Extra IPA, Otra Vez, Porter, Nooner Pilsner, Kellerweis and Hop Hunter IPA. Seasonal offerings, like Celebration, Summerfest and Oktoberfest, show up periodically.
The brewers and fermentation scientists at Sierra Nevada are constantly on the lookout for new styles and techniques, and they are more than happy to share that wealth of knowledge when they can by collaborating with regional brewers and hobbyists.
“We’re all kind of in it together and we all want to see great beer,” says Tyler Rollins, Sierra Nevada’s interim social media coordinator. “We come from an industry where collaborations are something that make for a better craft beer scene all around.”
One example occurred last summer during Redding’s Beer Week when Sierra Nevada’s Abe Kabakoff joined forces with Clay Brackley, the head brewer at Fall River Brewing, to brew a batch of Bumpass Hell Ale.
Named after the bubbling geothermal area at Lassen Volcanic National Park, the ale benefitted from the addition of pureed apricots as a late-stage flavoring agent that produced slightly tart, slightly sour and extremely popular ale that was sold out within 90 minutes at a release party at Shameless O’Leery’s in downtown Redding.
Sierra Nevada is not just a stalwart in the craft beer world. Thanks to its commitment to the environment, as evident in its recycling and solar power programs and other sustainable practices, Sierra Nevada has been recognized on local, regional and national levels for reducing its impact on the environment.
Its new brewery in Mills River, N.C., which opened in 2015, recently became the first brewery to be LEED certified Platinum. LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized rating system for the design and construction of environmentally responsible buildings.
With the craft beer epicenter conveniently located in the North State, it’s an easy and rewarding experience to take a guided tour of Sierra Nevada, and not just because it includes a complimentary tasting at the end.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
1075 E. 20th St., Chico
Reservations required for guided tours; book online or call (530) 899-4776 for details