Business is really growing at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
At first glance, the southwest corner of East 20th Street and Whitman appears to be a tent revival in the early stages of setup. Two acres are covered with tall wooden poles, with nearly invisible rigging connecting each pole.
Were the poles not so solid or high, one might also conclude that Ken Grossman, the owner of the property and the adjacent Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, might be expanding into wine production with his own grapes. Grossman admits to hearing that rumor more than once.
The owner of the nation’s ninth-largest beer brewery (by production volume) is in the growing business, however. Already in the ground are two acres of premium hops, a key ingredient in all of Sierra Nevada’s beers and ales.
Humulus lupulus (the hop) produces a green cone that when dried and added to the brewing process gives beer and ale that slightly bitter taste that distinguishes one brew from another.
It will be September before the first crop of Sierra Nevada hops is harvested, and the yield will be small in comparison to the volume of hops used annually to produce the Pale Ale and other labels that have brought the local brewery international recognition.
Grossman plans on staging a “Harvest Day” when the hops are ready to be removed from the vines. The cones are destined for some of the special limited-quantity brews for which Sierra Nevada is famous. A Harvest Ale, to be available only inside the taproom, is likely.
Talking to Grossman, the co-founder of Chico’s most noticeable industry, it is easy to recognize his willingness to share his knowledge and love of microbrewing.
He sees the hop yard an education project and hints at more to come.
“I might plant some barley and build a malt shed, so people can see more of the process of how beer is made.” If it comes to fruition, the malt shed would reproduce the barley-to-malt process used before brewing became modernized and highly technical.
Grossman now owns all of the property east and south of the brewery down to Costco and the Silver Dollar fairgrounds.
“I purchased the property because I just could not handle the thought of a fast-food restaurant being built on the [southwest] corner,” he explained.
“When I relocated from our original brewing facility [south of East Park Avenue], the city [of Chico] felt that the location on East 20th Street was ideal. There were already two soft-drink bottling facilities located there.” Both are now gone, while the Sierra Nevada facility has undergone major expansion.
In addition to brewing quality beers and ales that are distributed throughout the country, Sierra Nevada has an attached taproom that is considered to be one of the city’s quality restaurants.
Within the main brewing area, on the second floor, is the Big Room. A concert venue seating nearly 400, The Big Room brings nationally known performers to Chico on a regular basis, with an emphasis on blues and jazz acts.
When singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and her partner, guitarist David Rawlings, appeared on May 18, the show sold out in 23 minutes.
The success of Sierra Nevada “was not something we envisioned when we started brewing back in 1980,” said Grossman.
“Back then, the facility was designed for a 3,000 annual barrel capacity. Today, we are brewing 550,000 barrels.
“When we started out, there were no other small breweries for us to use as a model. When I designed the new plant in the late-'80s, it was planned for 60,000 barrels. At that point, we had grown to almost 15,000 barrels at the old facility.
“Nobody really predicted that this segment [of the brewing industry] would grow as it has,” Grossman added. He did not need to mention that Sierra Nevada has been the role model for the burgeoning microbrew industry.
“When we began in 1980, there were only 40 brewing companies left in the United States. Now, there are 1,500 breweries in the United States.” Still, he added, the microbreweries account for only about 3 percent of the national production volume.
Quality seems to be everywhere within Sierra Nevada. Solid-wood doors with brass fixtures, gleaming copper brew tanks, and elaborate handcrafted murals are all part of the visual experience. Ask any beer drinker who was in Chico in 1981 when Sierra Nevada Pale Ale first became available: Quality has been a mainstay of its brews from the beginning.
“From our first days, we have really tried to focus on the quality of our product and the quality of our ingredients. We’ve been successful at that, and over the years, as we’ve grown, I’ve tried to put back some of that investment into trying to make the beer better and to create a facility that works smoothly.”
Premium hops for Sierra Nevada are grown mostly in Washington State. To insure freshness, they are flown to Chico, sometimes even overnight after harvest. The barley comes from Saskatchewan, Canada.
Grossman adds that, since Sierra Nevada does not advertise, “our facility is our advertisement. We have tried to make our plant something that demonstrates quality and smooth production.”
Sierra Nevada is also a good neighbor. Wastewater, a significant byproduct of beer production, is recycled on the premises and used for other tasks including providing irrigation for the new hop yard. Solid byproducts are trucked to the Chico State University Farm for cattle feed. The beef produced returns to the taproom as steak.
It is also a very public facility. The entire East 20th Street façade of Sierra Nevada reveals the larger aspects of the brewery, including cooling towers, cookers and filtering tanks. Inside, daily guided walking tours allow the visitor to view the rest of the production process, including a state-of-the-art bottling and packaging system.
Over the years, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has been closely involved with community activities and local businesses.
Among the early limited beers produced by Grossman are two labels bearing the impressive "News & Review" name. A second floor mini-museum displays these and many other unique-to-Chico brands.