Recently I was lucky enough to join a friends Sierra Nevada Beer Camp team in Chico, CA. I had seen the Beer Camp series mixed cases in the stores, and being a NorCal native, I had a pretty good idea about Sierra Nevada " or so I thought.
For those who dont know what Beer Camp is, starting in 2008 Ken Grossman thought it would be great to get together with a few other leading craft brewers to make some beers that they otherwise would not produce due to production constraints, costs, or stylistic risks. Sierra Nevada foots the bill for the ingredients and makes their Pilot Brewhouse available to brew. These small batch releases are sold at select bars or special events, and if exceptional, are included as part of the national Beer Camp series. What has transpired since is an environment of collaboration and camaraderie and a seven-city Beer Camp tour several of the years since inception. It has also turned into a great marketing and sales tool whereby Sierra Nevada invites key customers and suppliers to learn about Sierra Nevada, sample upcoming beers, participate in the brewing process, get educated on the dos and donts of storage and serving, and generally fall in love with Sierra Nevada all over again.
Before I get into my Beer Camp experience I want to convey how thoroughly impressed I am with Sierra Nevada as a result of this trip. I doubt there is anyone reading this in North America that hasnt had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Being the 3rd largest craft brewer by volume, I suspect some are skeptical of their craft brew status, but when you tour the facility " something I highly recommend " you quickly realize Sierra Nevada is brewing beer like any other craft beer brewery, just on a larger " much larger " scale. No extract, sugars, or powders are used, or any other shortcuts. They mill over a million pounds of grain a week at each facility, mash for a full hour, and boil for 90 minutes. The process has not changed from when Sierra Nevada first started brewing beer. Only whole cone hops are used with an impressive variety to choose from. Brewers supervise every step taking samples, dumping 33 Gal containers of hops into the kettle, and checking gravity.
If you dont feel like buying a vial of WLP001 and have a bottle of Pale Ale, no worries: just harvest the yeast sediment and propagate. Sierra Nevada is the largest brewer of bottle conditioned beer on the planet. Each bottle is injected with a small amount of yeast and sugar right before capping and then conditioned at 70F for two weeks. Prior to Camp, I emailed one of our Camp Brewmasters about yeast strains available to us and if their house ale yeast is similar to WLP001, to which he replied that WLP001 actually best mimics their house ale yeast. Sierra Nevada has been producing its signature Pale Ale and other favorites long before the current IPA and Pale Ale revolution. We take for granted the role that Sierra Nevada has played in helping create what we refer to today as the "West Coast style" beer and their influence in the yeasts strains associated with it.
To say Sierra Nevada is obsessed with quality is an understatement. They have full sensory and chemical analysis labs and the equipment used is straight out of a CSI episode. Their sensory team constantly checks products for a variety of off flavors, oxidation, or anything else that would be inconsistent with their standards but likely imperceptible by the average consumer. Considerable time is spent educating customers about proper transport, storage, and serving of their beers to ensure each experience is the same as the last.
Sierra Nevada is green and I am not referring to its signature label. They have one of the largest private PV Solar installations in the world, generating 20% of their electric needs. There is no roof or parking lot shade structure that is not mounted with PV panels. At the time of my visit they were replacing the old fuel cell generators with new low emission micro-turbine generators capable of two megawatts of electricity. 98% of the waste generated on site is collected and either reused, recycled, or composted. Their goal is 100%. All spent grain and hops are driven by the truck load to local ranchers. CO2 is recaptured and used in various other areas, as is water from various other operations.
As an owner of a manufacturing business, what captivated me most is the kegging and bottling line. We entered through what I can only describe as Star Trek doors that opened up quickly with the same noise and speed familiar to Trekkies. I marveled at the automation, speed, and accuracy of the bottling facility which can process 1 million bottles of beer a day. The bottling line is so fast they cant brew beer fast enough. They brew beer 24-7 while the bottling line runs only 5 days a week.
If you dont know the history of Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada, I recommend either touring one of the two facilities and/or reading Beyond the Pale, but in brief Sierra Nevada started just like most small breweries do today, except at a time when Ken Grossman was thought mad to start a craft brewery, as only a couple existed and the beer market was dominated by the BMC crowd. Ken Grossman was a homebrewer with a homebrew supply store in Chico at time when home brewing wasnt exactly legal. He built Sierra Nevada on a lot of sweat equity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and above all passion. To go from a small metal building with repurposed dairy equipment at a time when there were only 40 breweries in the country " as in total number of breweries, not just craft " to a net worth of over $1 billion and still be a privately-held family operation is a true example of whats possible given enough passion, determination, and of course hard work and a little luck. It seems the entire history of Sierra Nevada has been a continual state of expansion trying to keep up with ever-increasing demand. Today Pale Ale, that signature hoppy beer in a brown bottle and a forest green label, still accounts for over half of their sales.
Ken Grossman and family are actively involved in the operations of both facilities. During my 2-1/2 days I saw Ken Grossman over a dozen times walking about the facility, having pints in the pub, talking to visitors and industry types, and even making sushi in the pub kitchen on a Wednesday evening and personally delivering to our table. There is no detail small or large that does not go by Kens watchful eye, and you get a sense that each employee feels connected to Ken as if he knows all 1000 plus by name and interacts with them all regularly. He comes off as a humble man having a lot of fun doing something he is extremely passionate about.
Yet despite all of this success, fast forward 35 years to today where we are approaching 4000 plus craft brewers with another 2 being added every day, and theres a real sense Sierra Nevada is concerned with maintaining quality and output for fear of losing market share in the increasingly crowded craft beer segment. Shutting down the production line at Sierra Nevada is an act of treason, and we were all warned on our tour not to bump into any red E-Stops lest we have a less than pleasant meeting with the Man himself. A company with a net worth of over $1 billion thats capable of churning out 1 million bottles a day and is still concerned about losing market share truly puts into perspective the challenges faced by any craft brewery startup today. The field is crowded and getting more so every day.
As a commercial craft brewer you have to put your best product forward. It is for this reason that Sierra Nevadas deep rooted obsession with quality and consistency are paying them dividends. How many times have we ventured into a new brewery, sampled their beers, and detected flaws never to come back again? If you are thinking of starting a brewery, you have to budget for loss in your initial plan. Learn your system and keep dumping until you get it right, because much bigger and more established breweries are spending a LOT of money to consistently put their best product forward. The brew pubs will only put your beer on if they know you can consistently deliver the same quality beer. My friend, the one who invited me on this adventure, buys a LOT of beer each year for a national restaurant and sports bar chain, and he confirms the need for new breweries to get it right if they want a spot on one of his regional rotating handles. If your next keg delivery is a day late, too bad, your handle was already replaced with another beer from another small regional brewery trying to get exposure.
As for Beer Camp: I am a novice homebrewer invited by a good friend to join his team on an all-expenses paid bookoo compliments of Sierra Nevada. I was as giddy as kid going to Disneyland for the first time, with visions of spending two days carefully crafting our recipe and then tending to mash tuns and kettles with mash paddle in hand. Beer Camp #144 consisted of ten people: four from a large West Coast grocery chain, two who bought entry at a fund raiser auction, and our team of four representing the NorCal region for a national sports bar chain. Of the ten campers I was the only one with actual brewing experience.
Our Beer Camp coordinator sent emails prior to Camp with an agenda, ingredients list, and a recommendation that the team come to consensus on a style. House ale and pilsner yeasts are always in ready supply, but anything outside of these would require two weeks advance notice to propagate the starter. Some ideas were tossed about prior to Camp, but it became clear we would be winging it and likely would be using ale yeast.
We arrived at the crowded Sierra Nevada pub at the East Brewhouse at 5pm on a Wednesday. We ordered a couple of pints and quickly met our guide, Byron, who immediately reprimands us for having bought beers. From this moment forward our Beer Camp experienced flowed, and I mean flowed as in unlimited opportunity to drink really great, fresh Sierra Nevada beer. I quickly realized that I had better pace myself, for this was going to be a long couple of days and nights. Byron is a gracious guide and host, and ordered ample appetizers for us campers, making sure everyone always had a full pint and got their question answered. We had dinner on the pub patio, and as a foodie I was impressed with everything I sampled. The menu is diverse and goes well beyond pub fare. We stumbled out of the pub around 9pm, and still feeling giddy headed to downtown Chico.
Thursday morning was a bit of a slow start " so much for pacing myself. Byron greeted us at the West Brewhouse at 8am with first pint in hand by 8:15am. After orientation and distribution of safety equipment, Byron gave a detailed presentation on the history of Sierra Nevada. Byron is a homebrewer and distiller with an impressive knowledge and understanding of all things brewing and Sierra Nevada. At 9am our Camp brewmaster, Abe, greeted us and and we sampled more delicious beer as he led the discussion on what beer we would be brewing. Those wanting Saison quickly learned that ship had sailed 2 weeks prior. We ultimately agreed on a Red IPA at 7% ABV and 55 IBUs. I helped with the hop selection and asked if we could add a little wheat for mouthfeel and head retention to which Abe was happy to comply.
Abe excused himself around 9:30am to return to the Pilot Brewhouse and Byron took us on an in depth tour of the brewery, which included sampling some of the barrel aged beers and other specialty beers conditioning in tanks. Being able to taste Bigfoot and other ales in various casks was a unique and enlightening experience. The cost to barrel aged beer is significant: at their cheapest, used wine barrels can be found for $120 a barrel; at their most $500 for unique rum or port barrels. Then there was the special release dry hopped Bigfoot and Torpedo we sampled from one of the tanks OMG! I may be chasing that hop dragon for the rest of my life.
We lunched at the pub with the same contingent of appetizers, entres, and full pints. After visiting the rail spur where the majority of their malt is brought in on rail car, we went by van to visit the original Sierra Nevada brewery, now a used tire shop. The excursion continued north to New Clairvaux, a monastic abbey for wine tasting. We returned around 4:30pm for pints in the pub and the invitation for dinner in downtown Chico at some upscale restaurant. My group of four declined, choosing instead for a low key dinner near our hotel so we could watch the Giants game and sample a few beers we had brought with us. Pacing, remember.
Friday morning we brewed. We arrived at the West Brewhouse gift shop at 8am. After a quick distribution of safety equipment, we went to the Pilot Brewhouse where Abe and other brewmasters awaited our arrival greeting us with coffee, breakfast and the first 10 barrels of our 20 barrel batch ready for boil. A quick check of color, a minor adjustment " more midnight wheat for a little more red " and we were off to add hops in the hop back one floor below and on to get the next round of ingredients for the remaining 10 barrels we would be brewing.
I should pause here to describe the Pilot Brewhouse. This is a three story, state of the art facility that brews 10 barrel batches and ferments in 40 barrel tanks. The Pilot Brewhouse has eight fermentation tanks, several bright tanks, a centrifuge, filters, and its own kegging line. The facility is split between separate mash and lauter tun, and two kettles. It is engineered to be a scaled down version of their main production line so they can replicate exactly how a scaled up recipe would work. Again: consistency. Since 800 barrel fermentation tanks create a tremendous amount of head pressure, in the Pilot Brewhouse they ferment beers intended for the main production line at 10 psi. I never would have considered this.
As we neared the hop cooler, the intense hop aroma greets you within 20 feet of the place. Once inside a green sticky film and intense hop aroma permeates the space. The room is kept around 45F, and the employee responsible for breaking apart 300 lbs bundles of hops and distributing them to designated bins and staged 33 gal containers looks like the Jolly Green Giant. I wanted to make snow angels in the spilt hops on the floor. After gathering our 14 lbs of whole cone Chinook, Simcoe, and Cascade hops and measuring them into color coded buckets, my hands were sticky green and the smell of hops remained with me all day.
From the hop cooler we went to the Pilot Brewhouse grain hopper and mill room, added our specialty grains and wheat and then returned to the Pilot Brewhouse to add hops to the first batch boil, chit chat with Abe and team, and... that was pretty much the extent of our brewing at Beer Camp. So much for hours crafting recipes and blistered hands from wielding a mash paddle all day.
We toured the hop garden, composting facility, and growing fields for the pub on one of the custom-built Sierra Nevada Beer Bikes built by Red Hot Metal. Byron, our fearless captain and guide, steered the Beer Bike and changed gears while us campers peddled our hearts out to German Oompah music blaring overhead, working up a sweat and of course drinking beer while charging ahead.
Lunch this day saw more salads hit the table than burgers or steaks compared to the previous visits. Our lunch conversation was focused on naming our beer, and we were tasked to come up with five names and five alternates. Given the immense rise in craft beer production, it is a difficult exercise to come up with a new name for a beer. This must keep many a commercial brewery marketing staff up at night. Fortunately the previous evening at the pub we met Jeff Lindsey, owner of Red Hot Metal, which has adorned the Sierra Nevada brewery with many architectural and decorative metal pieces, in addition to building the Beer Bikes. Jeff is a charismatic and creative person, so once learning of his company name we knew Red Hot Metal IPA was a shoe-in for our beer name. Especially since Ken Grossman and family had to approve it.
After lunch we spent the remainder of the afternoon at the sensory lab, quality lab, and being educated on various off flavors. I learned I am diacetyl blind " something I had suspected. We were offered via blind testing generous samples of Torpedo and Pale Ale that ranged from fresh to old, light struck, and oxidized, both bottled and draft. It really highlighted for me why not to buy beers on end caps, as they receive more exposure to light, and to pay more attention to dates on beers.
Red Hot Metal IPA will only be available in the 40 kegs worth we brewed, and not until September or October as it takes several months to get all the appropriate licensing in place for a beer with the various agencies involved in all 50 states, but in the meantime Abe was kind enough to forward the recipe which I have shared below.
In the end what I originally thought would be much more about brewing turned out to be much more about Sierra Nevada. I didnt leave disappointed though; quite the contrary, as I learned so much about commercial brewing. The in-depth look at a commercial brewery operation gave me a much greater appreciation for the intimacy of home brewing and freedom to make whatever I desire without having to worry about balance sheets, market share, or the logistics of making it all come together.
I have rediscovered Sierra Nevada beer and have gained tremendous respect for them and any commercial brewer trying to secure a slice of the craft beer market pie. If you ever find yourself in Northern California and within 3 hours of Chico, do yourself a favor and make a day trip to Sierra Nevada and sign up for a tour. I also hear the Mills River, NC facility puts Chico to shame. I also recommend visiting any local brewery, taking a tour, and asking a lot of questions. Beer Camp is not available to the general public. It is an invitation-only event, and something I am extremely grateful to have been invited along to participate in.
Next time you are in a pub or shopping for beer grab a Sierra Nevada beer. You can be guaranteed it will be fresh, well cared for, and darn tasty. It may even take you back a few years to your first experience with a hoppy pale ale.
Red Hot Metal IPA
Recipe Type: All grain
Batch Size: 5 Gal
O.G. 16 Plato / 1.066
F.G. 3.9 Plato / 1.015
Color: 22.6 SRM (Beersmith has it at 15.22 SRM)
Mash 153F (60 min)
Boil 90 min
9.22 lbs Pale 2-Row
12.29 oz Wheat
12.29 oz C-15
2.46 oz Patagonia Especial (C-140)
1.47 oz Midnight Wheat
.25 oz Simcoe Boil (90 min)
.25 oz Simcoe 45 min
.75 oz Chinook 15 min
.75 oz Cascade 5 min " flame out
.50 oz Simcoe Whirlpool / Hop Back
.50 oz Chinook Whirlpool / Hop Back
.50 oz Cascade Whirlpool / Hop Back
Brewing Salts (assume starting with R/O water)
3.46 g CaSO4 Mash
3.07 g CaCl2 Mash
3.07 g CaSO4 Kettle
1.54 g CaCl2 Kettle
.03 g Zinc Kettle