By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
Though they all produce the same beverage, chemically speaking, breweries are very different throughout the world.
From five of the six Trappist monasteries in Belgium, to Cantillon Iambic on the outskirts of Brussels. From the Anhauser Busch headquarters in St Louis, MO, to historic breweries like Schmidt in St Paul, MN, and Schell Brewing in New Ulm, MN, often described as Americas most beautiful brewery. I’ve toured many.
But I have had the pleasure of two visits to an American brewing pioneer that stands out among all others. And it is perhaps the most technologically advanced brewery in the Western Hemisphere.
I’m talking about Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.
Located in the arid banana belt of northern California amongst mile after mile of almond and walnut groves, lies this pioneer in the otherwise nondescript town of Chico.
An avid homebrewer—before beer was legal to brew, and before he was of legal age to drink it—and tinkerer, Ken Grossman founded his tiny brewery in 1978 and sold his first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 1980. A beer that would set the tone for quite literally every American Pale Ale from that day forward.
And by 1983 he was already shopping Germany for a larger copper brewing kettle. Much larger.
And an important factor that made that rapid growth even more impressive was that in 1982, he thought he may need to close due to financial and marketing challenges, were it not for some traction after a little old restaurant by the name of Chez Panisse decided to carry it.
From homegrown hops for specialty beers, to beef cattle raised for the adjacent restaurant and fed with spent grains from the brewing process, Ken does his best to complete the circle of sustainability.
But it doesn’t stop there.
As far back as 2008, Sierra Nevada was already generating so much solar energy that it was actually selling power back to the state of California.
And it was the rapid and successful growth of Sierra Nevada that caused the licensing of breweries to be redefined. They created a third, middle category, of brewery that fit between the under 10,000-barrel microbrewery, and the alternative legal distinction of macro brewery.
From a state-of-the-art bottling and labeling facility, to a giant control board in the brewery that looked like it could have only been designed by the finest of the fine in Silicon Valley, this is a brewery like no other.
It doesn’t take long to walk the grounds or make your way through their buildings to see that everyone, from brewer to line cooks, to the people working in the retail shop, all “drink the pale ale,” so to speak. It’s an environment where a large percentage of staff have been employed there for well over a decade, and that doesn’t happen by accident.
To this day, Ken still describes himself as a hippy with an adventurist spirit and a big heart. Though ironically, he is now in the very elite club that is American billionaires.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has a special place in my hoppy malty heart, and though it could be described as the West Coast version of Ben & Jerry’s, I know which one I’d choose every time.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman based restaurant group.