Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company Field Trip

Sierra Nevada Brewhouse art
Welcome to Chico!
I got the chance to visit the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company up in Chico, CA as part of an industry tour trip the other day. Sierra Nevada is most known for making delicious, hoppy beers like Torpedo and their Pale Ale. If you've never had the opportunity to tour a brewery or visit Chico, I recommend visiting this one. They are the 6th largest brewery in America and 2nd largest craft brewery by sales volume at the time of this writing. Aside from volume, the brewery prides itself for being pioneers in both brewing and environmental consideration.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company building
It felt like a beer palace
The Tour
The road to Chico leads through crop fields, almond trees, small agricultural towns, wide open plains, and many sketchy looking businesses. It took about 1.5 hours to reach Chico from the Sacramento area which wasn't too bad.
Road near Chico
Big wide open plains on the road to Chico
We got to the brewery early, giving us some time to stretch our muscles and use the toilet. Once the tour started, we were introduced to the brewery and given a bit of history about its founder, Ken Grossman. The brewery was started when Ken decided what he wanted to do with his life after graduating high school. Between turning his homebrewing hobby pro and making a bike shop, I'm glad he went with the brewery.

The first thing we were shown after the introduction was the hop room. Sierra Nevada is one of the few breweries to use only whole cone hops for all their beers. It's no surprise that they're the largest consumer of whole cone hops in the world. As a pioneer in hop usage, they've also been working with growers to develop new varieties to use in their beers. We got the opportunity to smell a handful of the hops; very fruity. (luckily they keep a hand sanitizer dispenser strategically located outside the room.)
Photos of hops
Artwork outside the hop room
Hop cone artwork
Hop cone artwork (more art below)
Whole cone hops
Much more exciting hop room than some other breweries I've been to
Next up was the milling room, where the grinder was located. Sierra Nevada does a wet mill of its grain before moving it to the mash tun. This is done to raise the moisture content of the grain prior to the mash. These types of mills aren't commonly used in brewing and I do not know how the quality is affected by it.

Extra Soaking
Wet mill
Impressive grinder
From mill comes the mash tun in the brewhouse, where brewing operations occur. Sierra Nevada uses these giant 100 barrel copper lined kettles. There are two separate brewhouses in the facility; both have the same capacity and equipment. The original copper kettle was purchased from Germany and reassembled in Chico. The other copper kettles came afterwards (apparently Ken brought the smiths out of retirement to build them).
Copper brewhouse
This is the brewhouse on the other side of the complex, but the equipment is the same
Where does the beer go after leaving the brewhouse? Into one of the 800 barrel fermenters. It takes 4 batches from the brewhouse to fill one of these monsters. (1 barrel = 31.5 gallons; each fermenter holds over 25,000 gallons). Even with all these fermenters, Sierra Nevada is still at capacity. They are opening up a new brewery over in North Carolina soon to increase production and distribution on the east coast.
800 barrel fermenters
They are big, but not as big as your mom
Conical fermenter underside
The underside of the conical fermenters
The walk from the brewhouse to the bottling line took us past the roof of the facility. It was covered with solar panels. Sierra Nevada is the largest private owner of solar panels in the country. The roof was absolutely covered with them, and according to the tour guide, that was only a third of them. They produce enough power to run the brewery and then some to sell to the grid on most days. Even on rainy days, the panels produce about 70% of the total electricity requirement. What happens at night though? I didn't ask if they bought back from the grid at night, but they do have a hydrogen fuel cell system that burns methane. The methane they recover from their facility. They're basically set when it comes to covering their power bill.
Solar panels atop the roof
Solar city!
After passing over the catwalk, we entered the building that housed the bottling line. It was a massive facility. The observation deck we got to stand on made me feel like I was the director of the place, watching his empire move for him. The warehouse was loud but was surprisingly clean. Sierra Nevada recently opened up a canning line as company philosophy believed that their beverages should be enjoyed in places where glass cannot be taken. I don't think the canning line could be seen from the catwalk, but I was still impressed with the complex regardless.
Sierra Nevada Bottling line 1
Packing cases of Pale Ale
Sierra Nevada Bottling Line 2
Lots of bottles on the lines
That concluded the tour. We made our way back over the catwalk and back into the lobby. Since we were a school group, the staff was not allowed to serve us free samples. Although saddening, we got around to trying some later.

It was time to explore the gift shop. The selection they had was great. They had clothing items like T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats along with merchandise like pint glasses, signs, and banners. Some of the more unique items included their specialty beers in the fridge (Ovila), growlers, and food items. Of course, being at a brewery, the food had a beer twist to it. There was beer mustard, beer soap, and cookbooks for cooking with beer. Additionally, Ken Grossman's book "Beyond the Pale" could be found on the shelves. I ended up getting a metal sign for my wall and a pint glass, I couldn't resist (I needed a glass to rival the collection my roommate has).
Growlers and Water bottles
I still have yet to get a growler (soon)
Sierra Nevada Pint glasses
I picked up the Ruthless Rye glass
"Beyond the Pale" by Ken Grossman

The Food and Beer
It was lunch time following the tour. What better place to get lunch than at the brewery itself. Even though were we denied beer by the tour, we could still buy it legally over at the taproom. It was only $3 for a flight of 4 2 oz glasses. Not too bad of a deal, especially when there were varieties at the restaurant that can't be found on grocery store shelves yet. I took advantage of that for 3 of my 4 choices. From left to right in the picture below: Bigfoot Barleywine, Knightro, Blindfold Black IPA, and Nooner Session IPA.
Sierra Nevada Taster
Beer time!
I went from right to left tasting.
  • Nooner Session IPA was tasty. For being light bodied compared to some of their other beers, the hop flavor didn't overwhelm the brew completely. It'd be something I'd like to have again. 
  • Blindfold Black IPA is a beer true to its name. You could throw a blindfold on and taste it was an IPA (like wine tasting). I enjoyed this one, but I don't think it was as good as the Beer Camp Black IPA.
  • Knightro was a dry stout served on nitro. It was extremely creamy and left a ton of lacing on the side of the glass. Although I typically like the darker beers, I really wasn't impressed with this one. I think the creaminess drew away from the dark flavor I usually enjoy in these beers.
  • Bigfoot Barleywine was the only brew I selected that I have seen in stores. I tried a barleywine from a different brewery once at a local bar and really wasn't impressed with it. Sierra Nevada's tasted significantly better than that. I'll have to try more barleywines to see which ones I like.
During beer tasting, the waiters brought out some bread for the table. Based on how it tasted, I can safely assume that some spent grains were used to bake the loaves. All the different loaves they brought out (Wheat, rosemary, cheddar) were delicious. I wish I knew how to bake better with spent grain. The bread also gave me the opportunity to taste test the beer mustard they make. There were 3 kinds of beer mustard: stout, porter, and pale ale. I liked the porter one the best as it tasted very creamy, but I enjoyed the kick from the spicy pale ale mustard. (Disclaimer: I am not a big fan of mustard)

By the time I finished my beer and bread, my food had arrived. I think the picture below says more than I can describe in words.
Delicious Burger
Delicious burger
The one thing I liked about the restaurant is that nearly everything on the menu had beer mixed in with it. There was pale ale battered fish and chips, Torpedo cheese, malted barley buns on the burgers, and house malted milkshakes to name a few.

After the delicious lunch, we found some free posters over by the restrooms (I grabbed a few). The air outside was filled with the delicious smell of malted barley before went got in the car to go back home.

Artwork and Oddities

Because I enjoyed the decor and themed artwork of the brewery, I dedicated a section down here to show off some of them. The first piece I noticed when I arrived were the bike racks outside the restaurant. I mentioned how Ken Grossman almost opened a bike shop, so I guess these keg-conversions are a testament to that. Now if only those kegs still could hold beer...
Keg bike lock
Remember kids, don't drink and bike
Keg bike repair stand
Even the bike repair stand was a keg (2 kegs)
Next on my list of cool artwork at the brewery were the photographs in all the hallways. Photos included concept art of the beer labels, Ken Grossman in the outdoors, brewery construction, and many other scenes.
Sierra Nevada Pale ale art
Pale Ale logo and concept art
Ruthless Rye art
Ruthless Rye logo
Ruthless Rye sketch
And concept art sketch
Finally, I enjoyed the little images found on the bathroom tiles in all the bathrooms. Certain ones had images of beer ingredients (barley, hops) while others had images of animals.
Moose bathroom tile
Wheat bathroom tile
Hop cone bathroom tile
Hop cone
Aside from these examples, beer themed decor was on nearly everything there. The brewhouse had a giant, beautiful mural, depicting the beermaking process painted on the wall (see photo at the top of the page). If you were going to make a palace dedicated to beer, you're a bit late; Ken Grossman beat you to it.

It's going to be hard to find a more magnificent brewery to tour than Sierra Nevada, but I'm always open to suggestions of where I should go next.

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