Craft-brew revolutionaries

Sierra Nevada collaborates with beer-making pioneers to celebrate its 30th anniversary

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. founder Ken Grossman poses with his new bottling line and a sample of its maiden product, Fritz & Ken’s Ale, the first in a series of four Sierra Nevada 30th-anniversary releases.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. founder Ken Grossman poses with his new bottling line and a sample of its maiden product, Fritz & Ken’s Ale, the first in a series of four Sierra Nevada 30th-anniversary releases.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

When it’s suggested to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. founder Ken Grossman that his expansive compound on East 20th Street is like Disneyland for adults, he smiles and admits that he has heard people characterize it as a “Willy Wonka experience.”

And, sitting with Mr. Wonka in his office, gazing out a window overlooking one of the brewery’s giant copper kettles, one can’t help thinking how far Grossman’s brewery, and craft brewing in general, has come since he brewed Sierra Nevada’s first batch of Pale Ale on Nov. 15, 1980.

As special as it is to live right at the source of the brewery’s world-renowned beers (and enjoy them for head-slapping, Chico-only low prices), the greater impact of the hometown brewery is much more significant than our embarrassing local riches. Sierra Nevada and its West Coast predecessors are a major reason why in three decades the number of microbreweries in the United States has gone from fewer than 100 to more than 1,500, and why today you can find nearly as many stouts, porters and IPAs in your grocery-store cooler as pale-yellow pilsners.

In honor of that history, and to celebrate Sierra Nevada’s pending 30th anniversary, Grossman got together with a group of his fellow craft-beer pioneers early last year to plot out a series of four collaborative 30th-anniversary beers to be released one at a time between the spring and fall of 2010.

Beer No. 1, a stout dubbed Fritz & Ken’s Ale, was released last week, on Monday, March 8, and is a collaboration with Fritz Maytag, the Anchor Brewing Company owner who purchased the old San Francisco brewery in 1965 and began cooking up what are regarded as America’s first craft brews.

“He pumped a lot of energy and dollars into figuring out how to make a good beer,” said Grossman about his longtime friend. “Fritz pioneered that for America. [He] brought name, quality and image.”

Each of the four anniversary collaborations is being packaged in handsome 750 ml, corked bottles (assembled on a brand-new bottling line purchased for this and future specialty releases), and will be limited to 900-barrel batches each. About one-third of each batch will be kegged and the rest bottled. Already, after just a week, local outlets are running out of Fritz & Ken’s Ale (Mangrove Bottle Shop had three bottles left on Monday of this week).

If you missed it, you really missed something. It’s one of the better beers I’ve tasted in some time. As it’s poured, a toasty aroma rises from a coffee-brown head. It has that wonderful creamy-malt stout texture, but with a welcome double-bite from toasted malts and an unexpected hoppiness. With its 9.2-percent alcohol content (making it what some would call an Imperial Stout), it might at first raise an eyebrow for the casual stout drinker, but it goes down more smoothly than such potency might suggest. You’ll want to take your time with this big boy, or better yet share it with a friend.

Profits from the anniversary beers are being donated to charities of each collaborator’s choosing, with $10,000 from the first beer’s sales already allotted for the Butte County Library.

The next release, an Imperial Helles Lager (out mid-May), is a three-part collaboration among Grossman, homebrew author Fred Eckhart (A Treatise on Lager Beers), and Charlie Papazian, author (The Complete Joy of Homebrewing) and founder of the American Homebrew Association. July will see the results of Grossman’s barleywine collaboration with Jack McAullife, the founder of the first American microbrewery, Sonoma’s now-defunct New Albion.

The final release will be an in-house, oak-aged, brewer’s reserve ale, and will feature a blend of oak-aged barrels of Sierra Nevada’s signature brews—Pale Ale, Celebration Ale and Bigfoot barleywine.

“We’ll sit down with various [oak-aged] batches,” said Grossman. “Like scotches are blended, we’ll try different blends.”

While plans for official festivities are still in the works, Grossman said that for the Nov. 15 anniversary date, the brewery will be promoting a nationwide toast.