Talkin’ beer with Sierra Nevada’s longtime head brewer, Steve Dresler
Besides owner Ken Grossman, no one currently at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has been there longer than brewmaster Steve Dresler. He came to Chico in 1979 with his wife, Cathy, to finish school, and graduated with degrees in chemistry and biology before getting seasonal work with Aero Union, the former aircraft company at the Chico Airport.
In January of 1983, about three years after Grossman and then-partner Paul Camusi founded Sierra Nevada, Dresler started working part time at the brewery’s old warehouse facility (“My break into the brewery was putting bottles into boxes for $4 an hour under the table.”). And as production quickly increased, and more brewing help was needed, Dresler was tapped to put his chemistry/biology background (as well as his amateur home brewing experience) into practice.
Now 57, with two grown children and having worn several hats at the brewery—moving from production to management as the company grew—Dresler is still as involved as ever in the brewery’s operations, overseeing “product development, a lot of forward scheduling, a lot of materials procurement, all those things that go with a major department at a million-barrel brewery,” he said.
When he sat down to talk to the CN&R in mid-September, Dresler had just returned from the Pacific Northwest, where he was overseeing the purchase of Sierra Nevada’s 2014-15 hop crop. And a couple weeks later (Oct. 2-4) he’d be in Boulder, working as a judge in the Great American Beer Festival.
Do you think you would’ve become a brewer if it wasn’t for Sierra Nevada?
Oh, hell no. I had dreams of being a high school or junior high science teacher. Thank god that didn’t work out, because I think the youth of America would be scarred for life.
How’s the hop crop this year?
It was a tough year, actually. Certain varieties, key varieties for us and for the craft industry, are coming in light. They had that really brutally hot summer—I think that stunted some of the growth.
In these cases do you use replacement hops, or just make less beer?
We have a really good relationship with our suppliers, we partner with everybody very, very well. So, I don’t foresee any short contract delivery. On the contrary, I’m looking at a little bit of a long inventory. So, if we can, [we’ll] help out our supplier partners, or other breweries, because I don’t want to be sitting on a lot of old inventory when a brewery needs that hop.
I’ve heard that every time you go into a new town you order a Pale Ale to see how it’s being poured?
You know, it’s kind of sad. My favorite beers are Sierra Nevada beers and I don’t really make any bones about it. And there are some great beers out there. So, often, I’ll get somewhere and I’ll go into a bar and they’ll have Pale Ale on tap and I end up ordering that first, not only because I want to see how the quality is, see how the beer is being presented, but it’s just a fucking good beer.
There’s been more and more emphasis on creating new, different beers. How has it been, trying to keep up with beer drinkers’ taste for something new?
Frenetic. This has been a really big year. You know, we have our historic brands. We have a history of Pale Ale or a history of Celebration Ale. But then you get into some of these new seasonals, and we don’t know what the flavor profile is. I have analytical specification—you know, how much alcohol, how much bitterness units, what color. [But] what’s it taste like?
How was the Beer Camp Across America experience for you?
[At the San Diego tour stop], I was walking around and I was chatting with people and I was meeting some of the brewers there. And I had a young guy came up to me … he had just started up recently a three-barrel nanobrewery. He’s doing less than 100 gallons of beer at a time. So, here is this guy, he’s serving his beer to 2,500 people at this phenomenal festival in San Diego, and the guy couldn’t contain himself; he was just so appreciative. That struck me. This is what this was all about.
Anything new and exciting you’re currently working on?
Oh yeah, I have another IPA four-pack coming out the first of the year. I have a new imperial pilsner seasonal for the first quarter of the year. We’re developing the barrel-aged program. We wanted to do some very small-batch productions to sell in our gift shop and also in our tasting room in Berkeley, our Torpedo Room. And then also, Mills River, they’re putting in a little brewery back there—a 20-barrel brew house—so we’ll be exchanging different beers.
We’re going to continue to resurrect some beers for the Old Chico series—I’m going to bring back a small batch of the Brown Ale; it’s one of my favorites. I would really like to resurrect the original IPA—it had that green label with the boat on it. So, playing around with stuff like that. We’ve got four variety packs next year, all of which have two, if not three new beers in them.