‘The next evolution’

On the scene in North Carolina at the grand opening of Sierra Nevada’s new brewery

Brian Grossman, co-manager of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s new Mills River, N.C., brewery, leans against one of the facility’s copper-coated brewing tanks during its grand opening celebration (below) on Sunday.

Brian Grossman, co-manager of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s new Mills River, N.C., brewery, leans against one of the facility’s copper-coated brewing tanks during its grand opening celebration (below) on Sunday.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Last Sunday (Aug. 3), this Chico reporter sat on a rented bus filled with excited beer fans, looking out the window at the densely forested Blue Ridge Mountains of the Appalachian Range rising in the distance as the shuttle exited a newly constructed traffic circle onto Sierra Nevada Way.

This joining of the East and West coasts’ respective iconic mountain ranges is an apt symbol for what awaited us at the end of the road—the final stop of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s two-week-long, seven-city, Beer Camp Across America tour. It was a celebration of both the rosy state of craft beer in America today and the opening of the Chico-born craft-beer pioneer’s new East Coast brewing facility in tiny Mills River, N.C., on the outskirts of the college town of Asheville.

The day’s 80-brewery beer festival served as the official grand-opening celebration of the company’s now-fully-operational second brewery, and it was the culmination of not only the extended party of the beer tour, but also Sierra Nevada’s 35-year journey to become the largest independently owned craft brewery in the country.

“It’s been insane,” said Brian Grossman, son of Sierra Nevada owner Ken Grossman and the co-manager (with Stan Cooper, former logistics manager in Chico) of the new North Carolina brewery.

Grossman reflected on the recent two-week adventure as he stood in front of the copper-accented brick façade of the impressive new facility as more than 4,000 beer-lovers milled about the grounds on a warm summer afternoon, enjoying some fine beers and gawking at Sierra Nevada’s new monument to the craft. Asked what the response has been to the company’s celebratory tour, Grossman looked around at the scene and smiled. “I think it’s been really awesome—as you can see.”

Even though there is still work to be done, the brewery is already producing many of Sierra Nevada’s flagship products—Pale Ale, Torpedo, Flipside—with shipments starting back in January. The new brewery is now at its maximum-production pace—approximately 350,000 barrels a year, Grossman said. In fact, he pointed to the row of big silver caps visible on the roof of the fermentation building where additional tanks can—and likely will soon—be dropped into existing infrastructure to expand capacity by about 400,000 barrels.

Also in the works is another Big Room performance venue, and a restaurant and tap room with an expanded bar. Future planned additions include an outdoor beer garden, an outdoor amphitheatre, as well as a dock along the French Broad River that borders the property. Boaters will then be able to paddle right up to the brewery.

“Sort of this whole thing is: If we could do it all over again in Chico—[given what] we learned over the 35 years—then this is what we’d build,” Grossman said about his family’s approach to their new brewery. “So this is what we built.”

And for the brewery to grow as well as continue to meet its commitment to sustainability, the Grossmans had no choice but to build the new facility to meet demand and reduce the carbon footprint created by shipping beer across the country.

The last day of Beer Camp Across America, and the grand opening of Sierra Nevada’s Mills River brewery.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

“Chico was originally designed to be 60,000 barrels of capacity. It’s now running at a million,” explained Grossman about how the Chico plant was pushed to the limit and no longer had room to grow. Plus, without the foresight of how rapidly the Chico brewery would need to build in order to meet demands, additions were made piecemeal over the years, and Grossman said that Chico isn’t as “process efficient” as it could be.

“The more straight and linear you can get it, the better,” he said before pointing to the new facility. “So, if you look at this brewery, you go from the brew house, straight into the fermentation cells, right into filtration, right into packaging.

“It’s the next evolution.”

And beer-friendly Western North Carolina is arguably the current center of the overall evolution of the rapidly growing craft industry. In 2013, about 15 miles south of Sierra Nevada’s new location, Longmont, Colo.’s Oskar Blues Brewery expanded east and opened its own second facility in Brevard, N.C. And by the end of 2015, craft-beer giant New Belgium (Fort Collins, Colo.) will open its second brewery in Asheville, just 10 miles north of Sierra Nevada.

“It’s a compliment to the brewers who already existed here for these incredible craft brands to want to set up shop here in North Carolina,” said Margo Knight Metzger, executive director of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild. “And also I think they’re a complement with an ‘e,’ you know? They are complementing what’s already happening here. They are helping to drive tourism, not only to their own breweries, but to the breweries that have already existed here.

“The homegrown North Carolina breweries and the expansion breweries are partnering together to maybe create an East Coast beer mecca.”

As Metzger suggests, North Carolina, and the Asheville area in particular, was already a great beer destination before the newcomers arrived, with more than 100 craft brewers in the state and Asheville having the distinction of being voted Beer City USA several times in craft-brewing pioneer Charlie Papazian’s annual poll. And like the other expansion breweries, in addition to the draw of natural beauty and clean water, Sierra Nevada chose the region with the intention of joining its burgeoning beer culture.

“Sierra Nevada has been making a real effort to be a good neighbor, to be a good citizen to the region, to be a good citizen to the state, to be active with the guild,” Metzger said.

For Grossman, the end of the Beer Camp tour means he’s come home. The 29-year-old, his wife, Gina, and their 1-year-old son have been Asheville residents for 18 months now, and he said that the community has welcomed the business and his family. “Southern hospitality—it’s really awesome,” he said.

And with the extended celebration finally coming to end, after the day’s festivities, Grossman said that it’s time to get back to work.

In addition to day-to-day brewing operations, there are many building projects to be finished on the 184-acre Mills River site, where, according to Sierra Nevada Communication Manager Ryan Arnold, construction thus far has taken up approximately 30 acres. In September, to coincide with the opening of the new gift shop, public tours and tastings will begin, and the unfinished taproom and restaurant is scheduled to open in late 2014 or early 2015. Hiking and biking trails on the grounds should also be completed by spring of 2015.