Concept to concoction
The pilot brewery at Sierra Nevada brings new beers to life
“I wasn’t into brewing a pink beer,” Abe Kabakoff said, sipping the beer in question—Sierra Nevada’s Ovila Abbey Golden Ale with pomegranate. Had he added the pomegranate too early, he explained, the fruity flavor would be lost. Too late, and the beer would assume a pinkish hue. And Kabakoff wasn’t having that.
As demonstrated by the Golden Ale, a fully realized beer requires a delicate balance of ingredients and precise timing, and finding that sweet spot is Kabakoff’s specialty. He’s head of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s pilot brewery, a relatively small facility behind the Chico brewery’s main brewhouse where new beers go from concept to concoction. During a recent tour of the pilot brewery, Kabakoff discussed some of his finer accomplishments, one memorable failure, and what it takes for an experimental beer to hit grocery store shelves.
Despite the fact that he’s overseen the creation of some of the country’s most beloved craft beers, Kabakoff has an air of humility and seems to approach his work with the mindset of a homebrewer who really enjoys exploring new flavors. He first got into brewing at a pub in Germany 12 years ago, then completed a five-month program in brewing science at UC Davis and started at Sierra Nevada nine years ago working as a cellarman. He assumed the top spot at the pilot brewery when his predecessor, Scott Jennings, left in October 2012 to become head brewer at Sierra Nevada’s brewery in Mills River, N.C.
The pilot brewery is a narrow three stories of gleaming steel storage tanks, centrifuges, piping and other equipment. It includes a research and development lab where “real science happens,” Kabakoff quipped, complete with bubbling beakers, scales and ventilation hoods; a mill room for grinding grain; and a fully automated control room on the third floor. It’s also in close proximity to a cavernous freezer where the brewery stores—literally—a million pounds of hops. The aroma is almost overwhelming.
Some of the pilot brewery’s experiments have gone on to become some of Sierra Nevada’s most highly recognizable brews, such as Torpedo, Oktoberfest, Nooner and Hop Hunter IPA. Others don’t find a home, Kabakoff says, while others still find a niche even if they aren’t sold in stores. For instance, a pet project of Kabakoff’s, a salted-caramel butterscotch ale, was selected to be stored long-term by the brewery’s barrel-aging program but likely won’t be released outside of the Taproom.
Which beers do hit shelves is determined mostly by the marketing department, Kabakoff said. If the pilot brewery produces a masterpiece beer, it usually isn’t released immediately. Rather, they’ll keep recipes on file and when marketing comes around saying something like, “We’re releasing a new pilsner and it’s going to be called Nooner,” Kabakoff said, they’ve probably already created a beer that fits the bill, or they can make slight changes to accommodate the goal.
And even after a beer is released, the recipe and brewing process is ever-changing.
“Torpedo tastes way different now than it did in 2007, when it came out,” Kabakoff said by way of example. “The flavor of Torpedo has improved along with the production process.”
The pilot brewery’s only true failure, as far as Kabakoff could recall, was a Belgian ale with a stiff 15 percent alcohol content that inexplicably stopped fermenting about two-thirds of the way through the process. With a marketing deadline looming, Kabakoff had to entirely abandon the idea.
The pilot brewery’s greatest achievement under Kabakoff was probably this year’s widely acclaimed Oktoberfest, he says. It was a collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele, an independent German brewery that has been brewing since the 14th century.
“Men’s Journal called it the best Oktoberfest in the world, which I take with a grain of salt,” he said. “But it was still a great compliment.”
Another recent success is the deliciously oily Hop Hunter IPA, of which Kabakoff is clearly proud. “It’s not one of those IPAs that leaves a taste in your mouth all day,” he said.
In the day-to-day reality of going to work, Kabakoff says he often loses sight of the scale of Sierra Nevada’s operations—that the pilot brewery’s creations will be sipped and critiqued by beer lovers around the world.
“Every once in a while it hits you that, ‘Oh, yeah, we make a lot of beer,’” he said. “It makes you realize where you actually work. … Sometimes I get a little stressed out because the goal is that all our beers are world-class, which is hard to define. But it’s something to live up to.”