Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman Talks Beer

May 16, 2011 2:19 pm

One of craft beer's founding fathers looks back

portrait of Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Ken Grossman, co-founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
 

This is American Craft Beer Week, and in honor of the country’s best beers and brewers, we’ll spend the week with William Bostwick and Jessi Rymill, the author and designer of Beer Craft: A Simple Guide to Making Great Beer. Check back throughout the week for beery lessons like style guidelines, pairing advice, and homebrewing tips. And don’t forget to pick up Beer Craft for even more infographics, interviews, and recipes.

Today, an interview with one of craft beer’s founding fathers, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

If your first beer worth remembering came in a stubby bottle, if hops have their own space on your food pyramid, if you live 1,000 miles away but know where Chico is, chances are you owe a pint to Sierra Nevada. Ken Grossman’s brewery, founded in 1980 with Paul Camusi, defines craft beer. It took them weeks of failed batches, but once they nailed their flagship Pale Ale, they never changed it.

Today it’s so common in beer fans’ top 10 lists that other brewers use the same iconic squat bottles just to get recognized as part of the scene. But Sierra Nevada’s influence goes beyond that one beer. Fritz Maytag bought the first Anchor brewery 15 years earlier, but Grossman proved to a generation of beer nerds that they could start from scratch and change brewing history.

You started homebrewing in the late ’60s, before it was even legal. What was that like?
I grew up down the street from a pretty accomplished homebrewer, so I was drinking homebrew before I even knew about Anchor, or the other small breweries. The Maltose Falcons homebrew club was starting up in LA. And there were a couple really eye-opening books early on about all-grain brewing and lager styles. But most homebrewing was done to save money, or make beer with a lot of alcohol.

Your friend Jack McAuliffe started New Albion in 1976, but it closed in 1983. Was that scary to see when you were starting out?
It wasn’t just New Albion that was struggling. There were half a dozen small breweries failing in the late ’70s. We were trying to steer clear. Everyone was operating on a shoestring budget in an untested market, which forced people to put out beer that wasn’t ready. So we focused on consistency. We dumped batch after batch of pale ale before we got it to a place we knew we could replicate and be happy with. As Jack told me, the brewery is a strict mistress.

Why did you start with a pale ale, and why do you use Cascade hops?
As a homebrewer, I could brew a whole range of beers—lagers, everything. But at the brewery, we didn’t have that level of technology. No lagering, no filtering. We decided that what we could do well was a bottle-conditioned ale. And we didn’t want to copy an English pale and use Fuggles. I ran a homebrew shop and I was buying hops from all over, and Cascades were the obvious choice. Well, back then, there wasn’t a lot else being grown here.

But now you grow your own, and you even have your own rail spur to bring in barley from Canada.
That’s to save energy. But yeah, as we grew, we could do more. When we expanded to our new brewery in ’88, we made our first lager. We made a wet hopped beer 14 years ago, flew in hops from Washington; it seemed like fun. We make a lot of beers that aren’t widely distributed until we get the demand to package them. Demands change, people become aware of new styles. It’s sometimes surprising—Torpedo has done a lot better than we thought it would.
Tell us about the collaborations you’ve done. I know you recently released a series of Abbey ales with a local monastery.
The New Clairvaux abbey outside Chico approached us. They wanted to restore this Spanish Cistercian monastery. They were a trappist monastery, so they had a lot of agriculture, and they had a winery. But they wanted a beer. These collaborations happen on various levels: Working with Sam [Calagione of Dogfish Head], there was a lot of beer discussion, but other times it’s just us coming up with a style and the partner nodding. Beer Camp is an opportunity to teach people here at the brewery about malts and hops and what makes beer taste the way it does. And they give creative input, they come up with a style, a name, and we brew it. We still view ourselves as a small brewery, and we’re just spreading the knowledge around. It helps the whole industry.

Well, not every small brewery makes a beer as iconic as your pale ale. Do people tell you that your beer changed their life?
Oh yeah, all the time.

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