Interview with Ken Grossman: Owner, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, California, U.S.
With a legendary craft beer to his name, an owner could Be complacent and coast, watching the profits roll in. But Ken is a beer geek first and foremost. After more than three decades in the business, he’s still relentlessly chasing a better beer.
What were the biggest challenges when you first opened in 1980?
There wasn’t a place to buy brewing equipment on the budget or scale we had. I couldn’t have afforded something from Germany or England. But I was lucky that UC-Davis was down the road, and they had a pretty extensive brewing library. I went back into books from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and saw how technology was handled in simpler times.
A lot of the articles I read and copied were on older methods of brewing. We tried to mimic simplified brewing systems with nonpressurized fermentation tanks or heated mash tuns that we now have the luxury of owning.
But how did you handle the equipment?
I built my first malt mill myself. We built a mash tun out of an old cheese vat I found, and I milled a false bottom myself. I used a lot of fundamental, but simplistic, equipment designs, but it was enough to get us into business.
Building your own malt mill seems incomprehensible.
I purchased well casing pipes, welded in end plates, put bearings together, and pieced together a functioning, but crude, malt mill that got us started. Those kind of skills were something I thought I needed, so I went back to junior college and took many classes in fabrication, machining, refrigeration, and so on.
It took a year and a half to put all the pieces together to make our first batch of beer, the building included. I did the carpentry, Sheetrock, painting, and all the plumbing and electrical.
I think Sierra Nevada has a reputation for being the best example of the art and technical.
A lot of the small brewers that opened in the years before and after us are all gone. And part of their downfall was a lack of consistency, quality control, and getting a handle on brewing science. It’s certainly an art, but there’s science involved.
And you’ve been head of the technical committee for the Brewers Association.
It was great; my passion is the science of making beer. I’m boring and read brewing journals in the evening.
So how did that science manifest itself?
We studied iron pickup in beer kegs and from water. A little bit of iron is not detectable by most palates, but 40 or 50 parts per billion of iron from natural sources or kegs severely impacts the flavor stability of beer. The consumer will experience a lessthan- ideal beer down the road. It’s those subtle things that contribute to the overall long-term enjoyment of the product.
What sort of other things have you found improve flavor stability?
We blanket our mill with nitrogen, deaereate our brewing water, and we invest in analytical equipment that can look at ppb or lower of iron or other minerals. Not one of these things makes a huge impact by itself, but all these little bits can improve the consumers’ experience. That’s a core value: We always know we can do a little better here or there.
That makes me think of your switch to pry-off bottle caps.
We’ve done a lot of research on bottle cap liner materials and are still working with European manufactures to find the Holy Grail of bottle cap liners. That’ll have benefits for us as well as the rest of the industry. Bottle caps are an inherent detractor from beer flavor stability.
We studied leaving twist-offs for many years. There was certainly the convenience factor, and hundreds of our customers voiced their discontent with our switching over. But we were not able to find a material that would work in a twist-off application as well as the best materials in a pry-off. The twist-off bottle caps have a mineral oil lubricant that allows the plastic to spin off, but it also lets more oxygen in.
What advice would you give to homebrewers on how to improve their consistency?
Adequate wort aeration is one thing too many homebrewers don’t get. Getting enough oxygen into the wort to get a quick fermentation and then getting active yeast in a state that it will start rapidly fermenting.
You grow some of your own hops and barley. It's an awesome way to help people understand the connection between soil and what we enjoy in a pint glass. Did anything drive your decision?
Actually, I have memories of moving to Chico in 1972. I was homebrewing and driving up through the Sacramento Valley when there were still hop fields along Highway 99. Then I made my first pilgrimage to Yakima in 1975. When I was starting my homebrew shop, I picked up a hundred brewers’ cuts to stock my homebrew shop with. Those are the 1-pound (455 g) bricks normally sent to brewers for selection. I was always very into hops, so I thought it’d be great to show people what the raw materials look like. We got into it around 2004 and got a hop-picking machine from Germany. Then we started growing barley because we wanted to do an estate beer and had some open property. We have a little rail yard near the brewery to bring in malt [that has] 35 acres (0.1 km2) of agricultural land with water rights, so we thought it’s a perfect place to grow barley.
How does it grow?
Very well. We have great crops and do it all organically. One of our maltsters came here and said it’s the best organic field he’s ever seen. We’re still learning, trying to pump enough nitrogen into the soil organically. We have cover crops, fish emulsion, and whatnot. It’s challenging.
Let's talk about the technical side of sustainability.
Going back to innovating, we followed sustainable practices because we didn’t have any extra resources to waste. We started out with a bottle washer, and I used to go behind Mexican restaurants to dig out Dos Equis and Superior bottles because they were close enough to our bottle.
And how's that spirit carried on today?
Today, we’re a very public entity in our community. We acknowledge the fact that brewing is a resource-heavy industry for equipment, barley, transportation, use of water, and discharge of waste water. All those things are in my face, and we try to figure out how to be efficient without compromising quality.
Not all our products have great return on investment, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do and it helps with the company’s mind-set to occasionally acknowledge we’re doing something for the right reason, not because it’s going to save us money. We have a garden for the restaurant and just put in a composting system that can take up to 2.5 tons (2,270 kg) per day of food waste and produce compost in twelve to fourteen days.
So you use it all?
We plan on it. We have a two-acre (8,100 m2) garden that we’re expanding plus a greenhouse. We want to raise the majority of our produce for the restaurant. After that, our hop and barley fields can take all of it.