Pints with Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman
March 1st 2017 | From Union
Ken Grossman, Founder of Sierra Nevada and a pioneer of craft beer, gives us a look at his venerated craft brewery.
How did you get your start in craft brewing?
I came to brewing, through the father of a family friend who was an avid homebrewer, winemaker and sake maker. I would visit my friend’s house and I would see these jugs bubbling and frothing and I fell in love with what I thought was the alchemy of brewing—converting simple ingredients into something wonderful. We would sneak samples of his brews and we were, of course, found out. He agreed to teach us how to homebrew in exchange for keeping our hands off his stash! I really took to brewing. I would make beer and wine at home, and I just caught the bug and it has really never left.
How did Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. come to be?
I followed some friends from Southern California who were attending California State University, Chico, and I would spend time homebrewing, hiking, mountaineering and riding bikes in Northern California. My friends and I got very serious about our homebrewing, and eventually I opened a Home Brew Shop in Chico. I dreamt of starting my own brewery, but, at the time, there was no such thing as a small-scale brewing operation. I visited Fritz Maytag, the owner of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, and soon after visited Jack McAuliffe, the founder of the New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California. Jack was brewing on a tiny one-barrel brewing system, and when I saw it, I thought to myself, “I can do this” and started work on what would become Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Many years later, with what little money I had saved, we started brewing. We brewed our first batch of beer on November 15, 1980, and have never looked back.
What's the biggest/most apparent change that you see in the world of craft beer as compared to 20 years ago?
The biggest change, really, is how much a part of the culture craft beer has become. When we first started, nobody knew what to expect. There were only a handful of breweries left in the United States and most were making similar—and bland—light American lagers. We presented people with an amber malty, hoppy and bitter Pale Ale and most people were like “whoa, what is this?” Today, there’s hardly a corner of this country that doesn’t have a great local brewery, and IPAs are one of the most popular beer styles.
Sierra Nevada recently introduced three new craft beers; Sidecar Orange Pale Ale, Tropical Torpedo & Beer Camp Golden IPA. Could you tell us about the inspiration that led to them?
Each beer has its own story, and each stands in its own place in our portfolio. But all three have the same theme: pushing the boundaries of familiar beer flavors into new places, both for us as brewers and for drinkers. Sidecar specifically was a labor of love. Our Pale Ale, these days, is considered a classic beer and we’ve always been interested in taking the flavors of the classic style and tweaking them a little. We tried brewing a version of a pale ale (not THE Pale Ale, but a pale ale) with some orange peel to mimic the orange notes naturally found in Cascade hops. We punched up the hop character further with the use of Hallertau Mandarina hops (a German-grown cultivar whose roots are from the Cascade hop we love) with pronounced orange character. We’re really pleased with that beer. We think the orange character is perfect—not too much, not too little—and we think it will do well for us. Tropical Torpedo and the Beer Camp Golden IPA both started out as part of our Beer Camp program and we really enjoyed them as alternate and surprising takes on the traditional American IPA flavor profile. So far, they’ve been incredibly well received.
How important is it to you that Sierra is a family-owned brewery?
It’s very important to my family to retain ownership of Sierra Nevada. We’re proud of the business, we’re proud of how far we’ve come, and we want to be able to stay true to our vision for the brand and for the company for as long as we can. Being a family-owned business means that we can make choices that are good for the long term—not just for the immediate satisfaction of providing a return for shareholders. We are the shareholders! For instance, as we were building our second brewery in North Carolina we did a lot of soul-searching about what the brewery could be in 10, 20, 50 years. The easiest and cheapest choice for us would have been to build a production-only facility somewhere off a shipping corridor on the East Coast, but that’s not really our style. For our family, retaining the brewery culture is important, and making a “beer factory” would have made it impossible to instill the cultural values and dedication that, frankly, make us who we are today. Today, my son Brian and my daughter Sierra are actively involved in the day-to-day running of both breweries. Running a family business isn’t always easy, though, and we sometimes disagree about things. Recently (at the urging of some of our team) we added the line, “Family owned, operated and argued over” to our packages. It’s funny, but it’s the truth. We can get together and argue over what’s best for us as a company moving forward, but we all do it in good faith, knowing that everyone wants what’s best overall.
Where do the name and logo for the brewery originate from?
Our brewery in Chico, California, sits right at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When I was younger, I’d go up into the mountains and camp and hike and generally just get away to think. Being out there in the wild was where I loved to be. We still look to the mountains for our inspiration, and I get out there every chance I can get.
What are your thoughts on the New York City craft beer scene? Do you have any NYC breweries and/or beers you like or would like to try?
New York has always been an important market for us and embraced Sierra Nevada early on. New York still boasts some of the best craft beer bars in the country and I always enjoy my time in the city. As far as breweries, I used to think that a person would have to be crazy to start a brewery in New York. Since then, the craft market has changed so much, and legions of people are now able to build thriving businesses on the small-scale. Now I think there may be no limits to how many small brewers a place like New York could support, and as long as quality remains high, we’ll see that model continue to expand. Aside from the larger brewers like Brooklyn, there are so many newer brewers like Sixpoint, Grimm, Other Half, SingleCut, Finback and others doing great things. It’s always a treat to visit and taste great beers that don’t get distributed widely.
Where do you see Sierra Nevada as well as the craft beer industry in 3 years?
We have a strong team in place and we’re making smart choices. As long as we continue crafting quality beer marked by innovating new styles and collaborations, we’re confident we will continue to grow.
Any tips for aspiring craft brewers out there?
As I mentioned before, brewers who keep the quality high and work to serve the needs of their local market have an almost unlimited amount of potential. Where I would be nervous—if I had to do it all over again—is with the idea of becoming a regional or national packaging brewer. There is so much competition that beers are being expected to perform much greater than they ever have been before. There’s no more room in the ultra-competitive shelves of grocery outlets for trial and error or out-of-stocks. Those are tough battles to win, and will continue to get tougher. If you don’t have to go there, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a brewer who’s just getting started.
Sours, along with Hoppy IPAs and Lagers have dominated the craft beer world as of late. Is there any chance that Sierra starts experimenting with any of these styles?
We’ve been making hoppy IPAs and lagers for years (decades, in the case of IPAs) and we’ll continue to do so in the future. Nooner Pilsner, our Oktoberfest collaborations, Summerfest and many other lagers (our summer “Party Pack” variety pack will have an IPL in it as well, called Hoppy Lager) have been fun projects for us to make, and some of my favorite styles to drink. We launched Tropical Torpedo this spring, we re-vamped Hoptimum for 2017 with an all-new recipe and we’re working on several variations on the IPA right now, so we’ll be sure to keep going strong there for years to come. For sour beers, we’ve dabbled a bit. Last year, we launched Otra Vez, our gose, which is a lightly tart beer. We’ve done some true barrel-aged sour beers on the small scale for our rare beer club, the “Alpha Hop Society,” and we have some ideas percolating now for future beers. We don’t really see true sour beers as playing a large part in our portfolio for the future, but you never know.
What can we expect from Sierra Nevada in the near future?
Hopefully, we keep making beers that people want to drink. We’re working hard and getting a little bit better every day, and that’s all I can ever ask.