The smell of hops, barley and wheat lies in the air. Small clouds cast shadows over the brewery buildings. Beer bottles reflect in the glass of a cabinet. Meanwhile I'm waiting impatiently for my guided tour to start...
Those are impressions from the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. This diamond of a craft beer brewery is located in Chico, which is a city of circa 80.000 people and lies approximately 225 kilometers (or 140 miles) north of San Francisco in the heart of the northern Sacramento Valley. It's one of my favorites, so expect a lot of raving about it from my side. And yes, Sierra Nevada is really big by now so one could argue if it's a real craft beer brewery, but let's postpone this discussion.
The story of Sierra Nevada, named after the mountain range between central California and Nevada, evolves around its founder, Ken Grossman. He first owned a shop for homebrew tools in Chico before he started with his own brewery in 1979. The first beer was eventually brewed in 1980, an American Stout. After the end of the prohibition Grossman was disappointed by the types of beer on the market, in his eyes they were too shallow in taste. So he tried to create his own version of a full flavored beer. Thus in the same year the Pale Ale was born. It only took one year more that the facilities reached their production limit, which at this time was a hand-built 10-barrel system. The brewery moved to a new location on the 20th street in Chico in 1987. He bought old equipment of a defunct brewery in Germany, which they disassembled in Germany, shipped to California and then reassembled on the new property. In 1997 the then 100-barrel system was replaced by a 200-barrel Huppmann brewhouse. But in 2012 Sierra Nevada was experiencing capacity limits again, a new brewery at a new location on the east coast was the result. This outpost in Mills River, North Carolina began its production in 2014. The bottling lines in Chico can fill roughly 600 bottles per minute and the canning line roughly 1,000 cans. Today Sierra Nevada is producing up to 970,000 barrels of beer per year (figure from 2012).
The portfolio of Sierra Nevada is ever-growing. From the origins in 1979 until now. It began with an American Stout, a Pale Ale and an American Pale Ale. Nowadays the brewery also produces seasonal beers and expanded its range of products to include a Pilsener, a Kölsch and more as well. A brief overview:
- Pale Ale - ABV 5,6% - IBU 38 . It all started with this, refreshing but rich in taste, full of aromas from California.
- Nooner Pilsener - ABV 5,2% - IBU 38 . A take on the original German-style pilsner, crisp and fresh.
- Kellerweis - ABV 4,8% - IBU 15 . A wheat ale with Bavarian roots and a fruity flavor.
- Torpedo IPA - ABV 7,2% - IBU 65 . The hop bomb, featuring a strong and almost aggresive taste.
- Hop Hunter IPA - ABV 6,2% - IBU 60 . Another very hoppy beer which is brewed with a revolutionary hop oil technique.
- Porter - ABV 5,6% - IBU 32 . A dark beer which is malty and chocolatey.
- Stout - ABV 5,8% - IBU 50 . A beer which is bold and rich in flavor, classic old-style home-brewing.
Not to mention several seasonal (e.g. Summerfest, Oktoberfest), special and very intense (Hoptimum, Bigfoot, Narwahl) and countless small batches of new beers (e.g. Schwarz beer, Vienna Style Lager).
Sierra Nevada tries to be as environmentally friendly as possible. In there own sustainability program they are making several efforts. E.g. a lot of the energy which is consumed is produced by solar panels which are installed everywhere on the premises. Additionally the energy which is used is well controlled, think of smart lighting techniques which go hand in hand with daylight to provide the exact amount needed. They also use hydrogen cells which are soon to be replaced by micro turbines to generate energy. Recycling and composting is everywhere, they own a HotRot system which is the only one of its kind in the US. They encourage their employees to use the bicycle to commute to work to improve there overall carbon dioxide footprint. They have a biodiesel program. They have a waste water treatment facility. And so on and so forth. Not to mention the daycare center, health insurance and other perks for employees in addition to the sustainability efforts.
... and once the tour started I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the production process, by the energy of all the people working in the brewery and there principles which focus around sustainability and a good work-life balance. I got to spent several hours in what is for me a place to meet and make friends and talk about something I love. I did two tours, one better than the other, had a beer in the hop fields and a very generous sampling session. If you happen to be around in Chico, CA or Mills River, NC swing by and take a tour and be sure to visit the gift shop (they have iPhone covers with integrated beer openers!) and the restaurant (the perfect addendum after a tasting).