How I survived Sierra Nevada Beer Camp
Words by Traction Alumni, Kele Todd
Every once in a while, Sierra Nevada invites a bunch of beer-industry types out to it’s brewery in Chico, California, for a couple of days of beer tasting and elbow rubbing which they call ‘Beer Camp’. This year, for the first time, they held a contest to select from among NON-industry types to attend this camp. I like Sierra Nevada well enough, and there’s nothing I don’t like about the words ‘Beer Camp’, so I submitted an entry to the contest (link). Happily, my entry was one of ten selected from California, and I subsequently spent a bleary couple of days staggering around the Sierra Nevada brewery, meeting all the brewers, sampling their fine selection of brews, and observing first-hand how they make the magic happen.
I arrived at the brewery on a sunny morning, Golden Ticket in hand* and stupid smile on my lips, and met up with the other Beer Campers. The ten of us stood around for a few moments, introducing ourselves in the steadily rising sun, all excited to be there. We sauntered into the lobby and handed our Golden Tickets over to the cheerful lady behind the counter, who then issued us our safety goggles and earplugs. Shortly, Steve Grossman, brother of the brewery’s founder, came out to collect us and get the day going. After a short welcome, Steve handed us off to the Master Brewers, our guides through the byzantine maze of the brewery. They were a cheerful bunch of guys with sharp wits, quick smiles, and no illusions about the strength of our desire to sample what was in the fermentation tanks.
And sample the tanks we did – standing in a spotlessly clean ‘basement’ under rows of massive fermentation tanks, a brewer tapped each tank in succession and let us sample from each in turn. By the time we got to the end of a row everyone was feeling pretty good, so we lit out for an informational tour of the brewery’s history to clear our palates before lining up under another row of tanks in a different part of the brewery. At one point we all loaded up onto a 12-person ‘bike,’ complete with two attached kegs and a sound system, and pedaled our way around the outside of the brewery, once again taking in the size and complexity of the place before ducking in to yet another sampling room. After another sampler of truly sublime ales, we glided out to the hop fields to pick fresh hops for the beer we would brew the next day.
The first day went by like that in a slow blur; tours of the facility and exposition from the staff punctuated by serial tastings under fermentation tanks in every corner of the brewery, the rhythm of all this broken only by a lunch of gratuitous generosity (and several more beers) in the brewery’s Tap Room. By the end of the day all of us were clouded by stars and ready for a nap – but the Sierra Nevada staff had different ideas. We were instructed to meet them out on the town at a local watering hole, Madison Bear Garden, to sample some of the local fare and further abuse our livers.
I’ll reveal here that my memory will only produce scant details of that evening, but here are some highlights; drinking a further number of delicious pints, playing an inexplicably skillful game of pool, eating something called a Jiffy Burger (An inordinately large hamburger served with peanut butter, bacon, cheese and mayo. Better than it sounds), dancing around in the streets of Chico, singing for a cab driver, and the subsequent nauseous cab ride home (Not paid for in song, sadly. In fact, my singing may have raised the fare). At some point that evening I hobnobbed with a few luminaries of the Sierra Nevada brewery, all of who endured my drunken babbling with admirable patience and all of who were just about as jubilant as I was. In any case, it was a wonderful evening (I believe).
Other than the beer, what’s probably most impressive about the brewery is that it started right there in Chico, in what was essentially one man’s garage. Back in 1979, Ken Grossman, a graduate of CSU Chico, rented a shabby little shack and began to acquire enough brewing equipment to turn his home-brewing hobby into a legitimate business. From there he just never stopped; he still runs the brewery today, overseeing daily operations as well as the numerous facility upgrades and brewing explorations that are constantly going on. The end result of Ken’s dedication is a brewery that is both a staggering engineering fete, and a beer that is the strongest selling craft brew in the world.
The Sierra Nevada Brewery is a sprawling place, too: towering copper lauter and mash tuns imported from Germany, thirty-odd acres of hop fields, on-site Q/A labs, a well-appointed taproom with a very impressive menu, frenetic shipping and receiving areas, and a labyrinthine system of levels built around a dizzying assortment of fermentation tanks that would send a Trappist monk into fits. And for as massive as it is, the whole place is remarkably well laid-out and efficient; like one giant, heaving organism that eats semi-trucks full of grain and excretes some of the most delicious beer in the country. It’s all very impressive.
The second day of Beer Camp was not as easy as the first. Everyone showed up at the brewery looking haggard and somewhat worse for wear, but still in good spirits and ready to enjoy another day. The Sierra Nevada staff, in an impressive and possibly practiced gesture of empathy, provided us with bagels, water, and strong coffee almost as soon as we got there. This was to be our day to brew, and though no one wanted to think too much about the end product of that brewing just then, we were all excited to get the show on the road.
As a matter of happy circumstance, every Beer Camper there with me was a home brewer; a couple had even won competitions with their brews. This meant that we all had a keen appreciation for not only beer, but the process of making beer. As we stood under an oak tree in the mid-morning sun, eating bagels and nursing our headaches away with warm cups of strong coffee, we swapped casual notes on brewing and told each other about interesting brews we’d made. It was all very pleasant, and we slowly began to shed our hangovers and pep up a bit. Suddenly, a brewer showed up to roust us from our coffees and rally us up a laboriously steep set of stairs to start making our beer, so off we went.
The Sierra Nevada Brewery has a small brew house exclusively dedicated to producing seasonal, short-run and experimental brews; the large brew house is where most of the popular brews are made, and this smaller ‘pilot’ brew house is where the brew masters get to go a little nuts. We spent most of our morning in this ‘pilot’ house, putting together our Oaked Scottish Lager (which we have since named ‘Loch, Hop, and Barrel’), and chatting about the business end of things with the Master Brewers. Half-way through the day, however, we were herded down to the tasting lab and given a chance to see how people who make their living with their noses do things.
The brewers at Sierra Nevada are understandably obsessive about the quality of their beer being consistent. Consequently, underneath the ‘pilot’ brew house, in a small but well-appointed laboratory, they have a staff of people who have actually been certified with superior olfactory senses, who they employ to smell, taste, and chemically test every single batch of beer that passes through the brewery’s fermentors. Though their noses are not as large as you might be imagining, their knowledge of beer and what can cause it to smell or taste ‘off’ is certainly huge, and they ran us through a gamut of test strips that illustrated several of the offending bacteria. A taste test was next, which illustrated two things to me; 1) my powers of perception as regard my own sense of taste are, essentially, shit, and 2) there are people in this world that can taste the difference between a bottle of beer that has been properly stored and one that has been set on a sunny window ledge for a mere 30 minutes. I am not among those people, and happily so; I must muddle along every day blithely enjoying things that would make them gag. That kind of sensory acuity is not something I envy.
The taste test was extremely informative, and proved to be a little hair of the dog as well; after it, everyone was a bit more jovial. True to form, the Master Brewers sensed our change in disposition and began once again to ply us with samples from the tanks. There had been numerous other Beer Camps before ours, of course, and we sampled their brews next, all of which were amazing. Then it was off to another lunch in the Tap Room, accompanied by the Master Brewers.
The rest of the day was spent making further brief tours to areas of the brewery we hadn’t gotten to the day before: the hop room, the gift shop, the performance stage, an additional Q/A lab, and so on. Once we’d trod every single tile of the brewery, we were once again ushered into the Tap Room to drink from the never ending fountain of the brewery’s generosity and watch the performance of a couple of original acoustic tunes about the Sierra Nevada brewery and/or beer in general, performed by other Beer Campers.
I limited myself to one pint, followed by two bottles of water, as I still had a four-hour drive back to San Francisco ahead of me. I made it a point to wander around and shake the hand of every Beer Camper and Sierra Nevada staffer I had met, though; every one of them had made my stay in Chico a memorable and very enjoyable one, and I wanted to tell them each that personally. The staffers tried to get me to stick around, using promises of free beer and another night on the town on the brewery’s dime; but in the back of my head I heard a listless keening from somewhere deep in my gut, and knew that my liver was imploring me, begging me not to stay. I thanked everyone once again and stepped out into the sobering heat of a dry Chico afternoon, and headed home.
*Yes, there really was a Golden Ticket
Chico is a small town and bit out of the way, but the Sierra Nevada brewery is really worth a visit (link). Their Tap Room is amazing, their tours are truly impressive, and the staff are a pleasant bunch of people. Chico itself is a college town, so it’s a good day or weekend trip, and an easy drive from Sacramento.