JOHN HOLL

AUTHOR|DRINKS JOURNALIST|BEER JUDGE|EVENTS

An Interview with Ken Grossman

Posted by: John Holl in Articles

Ken Grossman was sitting in a plush red chair thumbing through emails on his smartphone and seemed to have tuned out the world around him. It was the final day of the recent Craft Brewer’s Conference in San Diego and the bearded 57-year-old looked right at home among fellow jeans and fleece jacket wearing brewers. If he wasn’t paying attention to the scene around him, the younger generation of brewers milling about was certainly keeping their eyes on him.

Ken – one of the few in the craft industry who enjoys first-name-only status – the man who literally built a brewery from scratch. Ken, with his ruddy, bearded face with smiling eyes who inspired countless people to join the trade and changed the drinking habits of millions through his flavorful beers. Ken – a brewer’s brewer who earned the solid reputation that is the cornerstone of his Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Two younger men, aspiring brewery owners, got tangled in each other’s feet and nearly fell while walking past Ken. The brewer didn’t notice. He kept checking emails.Ken was focused. He is always focused.

Do It Yourself and Do It Right

The craft brewers conference is a sight to behold. Thousands of brewers, support staff, vendors, lawmakers, journalists, and enthusiasts, listen to seminars, network, and geek out on the fermented beverage. They vie for a taste of something new, have deep discussions on ingredients and processes and usually wind up spending long amounts of time in the exhibit hall. There vendors and manufacturers pull out all the stops. Full brew houses are constructed; sacks of malts and hundreds of pounds of hops are displayed from growers around the world. Manufacturers of kegs, logoed apparel, glassware, bottle caps, and really anything a brewery would need (or not) to be successful can be found. It is a one stop-shopping destination for modern startups and many show up with checkbooks in hand and leave with a complete brew house from gristmill to bottling line.

Ken – who fabricated much of the equipment for his first brewery – admits that it’s both impressive and yes, frustrating, at how easy brewers today have it. However, his intimate knowledge of every piece of equipment helped him to troubleshoot problems quickly and get his system back on line faster. It taught him the value of quality, and set the tone early on that nothing his brewery did was going to be half-assed.

Ken-Grossman

“What we had to do was figure it all and that has been down for a lot of new brewers and they don’t need the level of knowledge and understanding of brewing, that we had to have in the beginning,” Ken said during an interview at the conference. “We had design and build and build and fabricate malt mills and the things we did on our own made us better.”

He theorized that many of the other start-ups from his brewery generation eventually fell by the wayside because they didn’t know how to repurpose a soda filler for beer use, and thus saving quite a bit of scratch for important expenses.

“Our resourcefulness is why we’ve been successful,” he said. “I had to develop a lot of skills and build some stuff. I still do today but those early years of struggling helped a lot.”

The Beginning

Ken was a teenager when beer entered his life. A friend of his father was a home brewer and Ken would often stop by for a taste (taking care to leave just enough without arising suspicions). More than the flavor and its effects, Ken also studied the process.

“I vividly remember going over to their house and smelling the fermenting beer and seeing these glass jugs willed with beer and wine and all sorts of other experiments,” he regularly says when asked about his beer roots. “It was then that I first fell in love with the alchemy of beer and brewing. This was the early 1970s- all these years later, and I guess I’m still in love.”

He was eventually found out, and by agreeing to stop his pilfering ways, his father’s friend agreed to teach young Ken how to brew.

These were the days before the dawn of craft. When Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewery was the brewery of choice for West Coasters looking to experience locally made flavor and when exotic imports from Germany, England, and Belgium were treasured, savored, and sought after. This was also the time where home brewers had growing access to equipment, ingredients, and instruction. In particular there was A Treatise on Lager Beer, the first American home brewing text from beer educator and writer Fred Eckhardt. Battered copies were traded among home brewers who soaked up every word and learned to make flavorful beer at home when it was still illegal to do so.

In 1973 Ken moved from southern California to Chico, a city of under 90,000 in the Sacramento Valley where he enrolled in the local college, worked at a bike shop and would go hiking in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. In Chico, his beer enthusiasm blossomed and the curious Ken would take the four-hour ride to San Francisco and visit Anchor, he would talk with friends and family about beer, and would of course make his own. Ken also has an inclination towards entrepreneurship and an insatiable desire to build things. He left college without graduating and in 1976 he started The Home Brew Shop – a place where local enthusiasts like himself could come to talk about the craft and stock up on ingredients. It was a good life, he said, and he enjoyed it, but always looking forward he wondered what was next.

Then inspiration came from three hours south. It was in Sonoma where the first modern microbrewery opened, and Jack McAuliffe a gruff former Navy engineer had started the New Albion Brewing Company. Repurposing old dairy equipment and creating other necessary pieces from scrap, McAuliffe built himself a brewery and sold his wares commercially. It caught the attention of many including Ken who visited the brewery and was not put off by the choice words McAuliffe spewed at him.

Emboldened by the prospect of building his own small brewery, Ken returned to Chico and did just that. A few years of gathering and building equipment, borrowing money from friends and family while putting a business plan together with partner Paul Camusi led to the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Est. 1980.

Thirty-two years later, it would be easy to assume that because Sierra Nevada’s flagship Pale Ale is nearly ubiquitous, that it is on the forefront of brewing innovation, forward thinking with recipes, and one of the largest breweries in the country that it was a straight shot to the top. It wasn’t. Countless times over the years Ken almost lost his shirt and more. But, calculated risks and plain gambles have paid off yet Ken, his family – which now wholly owns the brewery – and his staff shows no signs of slowing down.

Forward Thinking

When Sierra Nevada reached its 30th anniversary, Ken celebrated by buying a new bottling line. This was not another traditional line but rather a cage and cork contraption capable of filling 750ml and 375ml bottles. The line was first used to package four anniversary beers brewed with many of the folks who inspired Ken early on, including McAuliffe, Maytag, Eckhart and home brew legend Charlie Papazian. His staff created a final brew. The brewery made about 1,000 barrels of each, not much considering the company’s annual production of close to 1 million barrels. For a limited run it would have made sense to most if Ken just installed a modest line capable of handling the small batches and moved onto something else. But Ken likes machines and he especially likes big machines. So a new area was added for the behemoth of a cage and cork line. Like everything contained in the sprawling Chico brewery it was immediately put to good work.

Within months of the anniversary ales arriving on shelves, the brewery announced that the bottling line would be used to package a new group of Trappist inspired beers that the brewery would produce with members of the nearby Trappist- Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux. The Ovila series – a departure from the American ales the brewery built its name on – has been a wild success. The line is also being used for Brux, a much-anticipated wile ale collaboration between Sierra Nevada and Russian River Brewing Co. that injects a small among of Brettanomyces bruxellensis into each bottle before it is sealed. The injection process is another brewery first and closely guarded propriety technology.

The same is true for the torpedo, a cylindrical-shaped device that is crammed with hops, and used as a filter for some beers – including it’s namesake Torpedo Extra IPA – leaving them with a robust kick in the mouth of lupulin flavor. Visitors to the brewery can see it in action, but if it’s open no pictures please.

Ken is a neat freak when it comes to the brewery. A dirty brewery can mean dirty beer, Ken saw too many startups fall because of contamination and takes great lengths to make sure his beer is pristine. That contraption that inserts the wild yeast into Brux? Workers on that line have access to HazMat suits and have practiced drills to ensure it doesn’t get out and contaminate other beers in production. A stroll through the brewery is not complete without out observing workers hosing down floors, scrubbing equipment, dusting or vacuuming. There aren’t many competitors who have left Ken’s place without questioning their own cleaning methods.

There is quality control lab that has pieces of equipment that cost more than most of the small craft breweries currently operating in the country. A research and development section has focus group equipment that puts mall questionnaires to shame. There is the Hot Rot, a composting machine that roughly 35 feet long and 10 feet high. The cost? Doesn’t matter. It’s good for the environment, and showcases the company’s commitment to green.

“Years ago the notion that quality would be foremost to our success has been with us since the beginning,” Ken said. “As we could afford to invest more in sensory equipment, technology, research and development I made the decision that even though it cost a lot we would have a real facility.”

In fact, it’s hard to find any step of the brewing or packing process at Sierra Nevada that does not have an extra level of detail. Together it creates the stellar quality of the overall final product.

These modern toys cost millions of dollars are found throughout the Sierra Nevada campus, which covers acres of ground in Chico and includes a restaurant, hop yard, offices, apartments, several different breweries, a farm, and gift shop. These are the technologies that captivate visitors, impress brewers and highlight the company’s momentum.

The first real innovation for the brewery, however, wasn’t a piece of equipment. It was hops.

Ken doesn’t hide the fact that he was mostly unimpressed with the American hop crop when he first started the brewery. He didn’t like how they were grown, handled, and arrived after order. Ken went to the source, traveling to Yakima, Washington where he was introduced to a relative new varietal: cascade.

He was smitten by the citrus and pine flavors and gave a healthy dose to his flagship ale, sent it off to market, and thus revolutionized the American pale ale. It’s safe to say that beer with its familiar green label has inspired many brewers and drinkers to embrace hops and take the style – along with IPAs – further than anyone could have imagined in 1980.

Anyone, except for maybe Ken. Today, brewers beat each other senseless to get their hands on new varietals and be the first to get it to market. Ken is right in there with them.

“We do a lot of hop research we do a lot with aroma hops and new varieties. We work cooperatively with quite a few of the hop growers. We are doing the same on barley and malt varieties, we do test batches on new strains.”

Going East

There is no two ways around it: the brewery in Chico is at capacity. Sierra Nevada is producing more beers than ever in kegs, in bottles, and most recently in cans. They are adding new products to the market all the time and have even more in development. Ken and his team have been building up to this point for a while and in January 2012 while they were getting closer to 1 million barrel mark, they announced plans to open a new location on the other side of the country.

The 180-acre sight is 12 miles south of Asheville, North Carolina in the Henderson County town of Mills River along the French Broad River. Ken said it would be similar to its northern California counterpart in that it will be a full production brewery with plans for an on-premises restaurant and gift shop. Currently only 18 acres are planned for development with the rest being maintained as woodland and river frontage.

Above all, it will ease pressure on the brewery, and scale back some cross-country transport. The initial design calls for capacity of up to 300,000 barrels, with room for expansion, and the added barrelage will accommodate wider production of seasonal beers as well as an expansion pale ale. Grossman said the brewery visited hundreds of potential sites before deciding on North Carolina.

Soon after Sierra Nevada’s announcement both New Belgium Brewing Co. and Oskar Blues Brewery announced they would be opening new facilities in the Tar Heel State.

“Sierra Nevada opening a brewing facility in North Carolina is another feather in the cap for the state’s already thriving beer community,” said Win Bassett, executive director of the state’s brewers guild. “Beer lovers already consider western North Carolina and the state at-large to be a craft beer destination and a producer of quality beer, and Sierra Nevada’s decision to join the brotherhood of brewers in North Carolina further strengthens our incredible community of brewers, wholesalers, vendors, retailers, and enthusiasts.”

Sierra Nevada East is scheduled to open in 2014.

A Lasting Legacy

Learning the value of each dollar in those early years is paying off today. Much of the company’s profits are returned to the brewery and help the business grow and those toys – important equipment really – that so impress wind up eventually contributing to the bottom line, which means more beer can be made, sold, and enjoyed.

A nature lover, Ken has filled the brewery with some of the most advanced green technology available and has been recognized around the globe for those efforts. He is philanthropic towards charities like the Boys and Girls Club of America, and to California State University Chico – that local institution of higher learning that he left those many years ago to start the brewery.

When Paul Camusi eventually left the company he sold his shares to Ken, making Sierra Nevada a family owned business and now Ken’s son, Brian, is slated to head up the new North Carolina operation, sending the company into its second generation.

Looking at the whole picture it’s no wonder that there are so many ardent fans of Sierra Nevada. Perhaps none more than the employees themselves. Ken demands a lot of the people who work for him: the hours are long, the tasks difficult yet it’s rare that people leave. In addition to competitive wages (even servers in the restaurant have health benefits) there is also onsite medial care and daycare. Those things alone would be enough to separate Sierra Nevada from many other operations, saying nothing about the beer.

Ken has come along way since those first days sneaking homebrew and he admits that when he thinks about it, where he is today is remarkable. However there is always tomorrow to think about.

“We’re going to continue to push boundaries,” Ken says, “it is part of who we are.”

This article first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Beer Connoisseur Magazine