Adventures in beer land

Beer Camp is another milestone for craft beer

No better complement to a hot day at beer camp than a good cold beer.

No better complement to a hot day at beer camp than a good cold beer.

PHOTO by heather post

There is a fun metaphor that’s been used in many of the stories written about Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. The 20th Street brewery, with its copper-plated kettles and networks of pipes and towering fermenting tanks, is like a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for adults, and owner/founder Ken Grossman is Mr. Wonka, welcoming craft-brew converts to his factory for tours and beer camps and tastes of the magical flavors brewing inside.

Well, this past Saturday, Mr. Wonka outdid himself. The 5,000 craft-beer fans who braved afternoon valley heat were treated to what amounted to a full-on carnival of craft beer, as Sierra Nevada opened its hop fields to 100 or so of the best craft brewers from the fertile Pacific Northwest—plus one stilt-walking marching band—to kick off its Beer Camp Across America.

The Wonka story is an apt part of the narrative for the company that’s led the way during a craft-beer revolution that’s seen the annual production of craft beer in the U.S. triple over the last decade. Not only does it speak to Sierra Nevada’s pioneering spirit, but also to the core values at the heart of the greater craft-beer movement: adventurousness, creativity, inventiveness and creating quality (adult) treats. And the Beer Camp tour—a traveling road show hitting seven U.S. cities and featuring 100 or so brewers from each region as it makes its way across the country to the finale/grand opening of Sierra Nevada’s new East Coast facility in Mills River, N.C.—is intended to not only be a celebration of the brewery’s success but also to the greater success of craft beer and the brewers invited to take part.

“We love the adventure,” said Jack White, CEO/founder of San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits, in a promo video in advance of Beer Camp. “So, why not make it an actual physical journey across the country, and a great adventure?”

As one of the dozen brewers who took part in the collaborative Beer Camp Across America 12-pack that was released in conjunction with the festivities, White was also on hand Saturday to pour a couple Ballast Point brews, including one of my favorites of the day, Victory at Sea, a huge (10 percent ABV) but smooth imperial porter brewed with coffee and vanilla beans.

It’s a ridiculous exercise to do a big rundown for an event featuring a couple hundred beer choices, but those flowing under the “Collaborator Tent”—where the hand-chosen 12-pack participants (from all over the country) poured their own brewery’s creations—were pretty special. The saison from Allagash Brewing Co. (Portland, Maine) and both beers from Cigar City Brewing (Tampa, Fla.)—Jai Alai IPA and Florida Cracker Belgian-style white—were highlights.

My approach for the day as I wound my way through the various northwestern breweries under the other three tents was to finish only what really blew my hair back, and pour out or share what didn’t thrill me. It was tough. There were a lot of interesting brews, including many bursting hop-heavy ales (3 Flowers IPA from Marin Brewing Co., the CAPA pale ale from Truckee’s Fifty Fifty Brewing Co.), but I have to say that my beer of the day was probably the Hellshire IV from Oakshire Brewing (Eugene, Ore.), a complex and very balanced old ale featuring a blend of five beers aged in bourbon barrels. Unbelievable.

As the heat rose in the late afternoon—and some beer campers wilted, while others smiled and drank and sweated to the final strains of the MarchFourth Marching Band—I wondered if the whole Beer Camp Across America spectacle might end up being some kind of milestone. Some day will we look back on this expansive celebration as the beginning of a new era in craft brewing? Are we beginning a post-revolution era, when an open market with a wide variety of beer styles created by thousands of constantly experimenting small-scale breweries has become the norm in America? (It’s not too far of a stretch—craft beer is winning the tap-handle battle and is already beating out the big boys for market share in Portland, Ore.).

As last call went out, I caught up with Mr. Wonka himself just as he was about to board the colorful Beer Camp Across America bus for its second stop, San Diego, the following day, and I asked his thoughts on craft beer’s success.

“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a pretty amazing 30-year ride for us. We’ve gone from about 40 breweries in this country to, today, about 3,000, and we’ve been part of that whole renaissance,” Grossman said. “And it’s been real special for us to be part of it.”

He then stepped on the bus, pressed the button, and zing!, he was off.