As a journalist, I was able to witness the birth of a beer…or ale, as some may argue. It was an experience with many steps and stimulated many senses.
To begin, as I walked into the brewery, there was an immediate smell of the emissions coming from the giant copper colored brew kettles. Hops. One of the four ingredients used in beer making. The ingredient that not only has natural preserving agents in it, but also gives craft beers the aromas that make them taste and smell so good.
I was there for a tour of the brewery. Even though I know how beer is made, (I have brewed my own batch in a tiny, silver kettle with simple home brewing equipment), I was looking to learn something new. Something about brewing, something about Sierra Nevada, something about sustainable brew practices, something about the transition from big American beer companies to family owned craft breweries. Join me as I share my day of discovery:
Craft beer has become somewhat of a novelty. People now have so many choices as to what they drink and how they drink. The days of cheap beer in a can are slowly disappearing, only to be replaced with craft brewers, small companies, and better beer.
Sierra Nevada is a beacon of light for small craft and family breweries. Their story is a perfect example of the transition from big breweries to small craft breweries and the recent fad surrounding specialty brews.
So exactly at noon, a short, curly haired, brunette in a green Beer Camp shirt walked in carrying a serving tray full of beers in small balloon glasses. As she passed the beer around to everyone waiting, she introduced herself as “Emma” and explained that what we were about to drink was pale ale, Sierra Nevada’s signature beer that accounts for 75 percent of their daily sales and production.
As we raised our glasses, Emma clicked on the flat screen TV in the corner of the room. A video, mostly of nature comes on. I watched as people jumped into lakes or slacked line between huge redwood trees as I slowly sipped on my beer. In my ale, I could almost taste the adventure that the video was so obviously trying to make me reminiscent of. I daydreamed for a little, about what…I don’t know, until Emma’s voice reeled me back in.
When Sierra Nevada first began, there was no such thing as small scale, microbrewery equipment. This brewery began with repurposed dairy equipment and self-taught welding of stainless steel scraps. Homebrewing in the United States was not even made legal until 1978. One year before the opening of Sierra Nevada and many years after the experimentation on opening the brewery began.
We handed back our beer glasses and got up to gather near the door that would lead us into the production area of the brewery. As Emma opened the door, another wave of brewing hops hit my senses. I could not get enough of it.
We followed Emma down the hallways, (filled with screen prints of the early brewry and it brewmaster, Ken Grossman & his friends drinking this glorious gold liquid), towards the hop freezer. As we stopped just outside the door, I looked around and saw another door leading to the Quality Assurance Lab. The chemistry nerd in me came out as I walked over to stare through the glass at the white sterile walls and countertops and vials of amber colored liquid lined up to be tested.
I turned back to the group and hear Emma explaining, “We’re all nerds here.” She continued about a story,as she led us into the hop freezer, about the naming of the beer Ruthless Rye. Most people think there is some dark meaning behind it. Ruthless. But here’s the kicker about the real meaning: Ruth is an employee at Sierra Nevada. When the rye beer was ready, Ruth was absent from work. Ruth-less Rye. It’s so simple.
Emma continued to chuckle about the nerdiness of all her co-workers, as well as herself, as she opened the door to the hop freezer where we were met with a blast of cold air. We walked in and immediately had the opportunity to grab a handful of cascade hops and rub them through our fingers.
I cupped my hands around my nose and inhale, true to their textbook definition, I get a slight smell of citrus and a definite reminder of the pale ale I had been sipping on about 30 minutes prior. As we turned to leave, Ken, the owner and founder of Sierra Nevada, walks past. The tour guide barely glanced at him – apparently this was normal around here.
I paniced like a 15-year-old with a celebrity crush. Emma explained that Ken is extremely involved and hands-on in the daily processes at the brewery. It is a family run business and everyone is treated like family. Beer brings people together, beer creates families.
I took my time walking down the hallway. I was the straggler of the group, but I wanted to see each and every photograph. When I finally made it to the huge, blue double doors at the end, Emma opened them and we were greeted by fresh air, and we began our outdoor walk to the bottling room. For how small craft brew beginnings everywhere may have been, the premises of this place are huge. Looming above us were the silver fermenting tanks that appeared to reach for the clouds. They remind me of an upside-down glacier. From the inside I saw just the tip of each tank, jutting out from the ceiling. Now outside, I realized how big they really are. This small brewery is a full-fledged operation!
Next we hikes up a flight of stairs and through a caged walkway that brought us onto the roof. There, we had a bird’s eye view of the whole facility with the hazy, purple Sierra Nevada’s in the background.It’s no wonder people fall in love with beer. Even through the chain link of the walkway’s walls, this place is gorgeous. How could you not love ale with a view like this?
There’s so much to see at the Sierra Nevada operation, that one could all stay for hours and keep finding new things. But the promise of beer at the end of the tour is the best part, as the cold, golden ale has brought us all together just as it was supposed to.
The next time you are in Chico, be sure to stop by the Sierra Nevada brewery operation. For more information, contact them at: www.sierranevada.com (and be sure to tell them DayTripper Magazine sent you)!