Chico’s Brew Turns 30
A peek into Professor Rob Burton’s book Hops and Dreams: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
By Joe Wills
Few things evoke feelings of pride about Chico more than Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Whether you are a beer connoisseur, fan of rags to riches stories, or someone who just loves the fact that your college town has an impossibly hip business—off-the-grid energy generation, owner who greets customers, huge success achieved with no advertising—Sierra Nevada is part of any “What’s great about Chico” conversation.
Hard as it may be to believe for some of us, Sierra Nevada turns 30 this year. In time for the occasion, CSU, Chico English professor Rob Burton has written a book detailing how a couple of homebrewers toiling in a rented warehouse in south Chico became the sixth largest brewery in the United States. Burton chronicles the rise of the craft beer movement, the popularity of Sierra Nevada worldwide, and trailblazing social and sustainability concerns at a company once focused only on selling a good-tasting ale.
The book also tells the story of owner Ken Grossman (in photo right), whose genius for beer making may be matched only by his humility and common sense in the face of truly remarkable achievements. Grossman, a CSU, Chico alum, notes that the brewing company and the University have a long history of partnerships. He supports College of Natural Sciences projects such as the award-winning student research converting brewery waste into biofuel. Business management and engineering classes often tour the brewery. And the company has donated $88,000 for the University Farm Meats Laboratory to further develop its line of smoked sausages, served at the Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant.
Here are some samples from Hops and Dreams: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Heidelberg Graphics, 2010):
Right place, right time
Abundant water, lots of sunshine, spectacular outdoor scenery, and a quirky history. That’s what awaited 17-year-old Ken Grossman when he first visited Chico in the summer of 1972. He entertained some vague ideas about fixing bikes and making beer on the side. Yet he ended up having the most telling impact on the local community since the Bidwells a century earlier, and a not inconsiderable impact on the history of beer in the United States, indeed the world.
“The Chateau Latour of American breweries”
From top to bottom: Ken Grossman tinkers with the bottling machine in the early 1980s. Grossman and partner Paul Camusi often worked 15-hour days in the 3,000-square-foot warehouse full of reclaimed and hand-built equipment; Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. honored the original Chico Brewery, operated by Charles Croissant at the end of the 19th century, by incorporating a photo of the brewery building on the label for Old Chico, a Crystal Wheat beer sold only in Chico; This Huppmann kettle, one of two purchased from a Bavarian brewery in Germany in late 1982, is unpacked in Chico. Huppmann kettles are known for their elegant burnished copper finish. Today they sit at the center of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Photos courtesy Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
It’s a compelling story of two twentysomethings from Los Angeles, Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi, who built a microbrewery in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the early 1980s—in a town whose founding father, John Bidwell, once ran for U.S. president on the Prohibition ticket. In the course of the next 20 years, Sierra Nevada turned its flagship brew, Pale Ale, into the number one craft beer in the country, changing the tastes of a generation of beer drinkers who had grown up with sugary, carbonated, bland lagers. During that time, the company weathered the microbrewery crash of the 1990s and held out against a possible corporate takeover.
The company soon acquired a national reputation for its cutting-edge conservation policies: recycling more than 99 percent of its production waste and byproducts and reusing spent yeast, hops, grain, carbon dioxide, wastewater, and heat. Despite the cost of these policies, neither the profitability of the company nor the quality of its products was compromised. Sierra Nevada beers continue to win top honors at international beer festivals. British-born Michael Jackson, one of the world’s leading authorities on craft brewing, dubbed Sierra Nevada “the Chateau Latour of American breweries” (a reference to the French vineyard famous for the high quality of its grape varieties). Additionally, much of the brewery’s profits are recycled into innovative energy-saving facilities, outreach programs, and local and regional nonprofit organizations—including public radio and campus cultural events.
Childhood construction projects
To this day, his mother, Eleanor, recalls how she had to “Kenny-proof” everything in the house while he was growing up because “he was always doing a dozen things at one time.” By the age of 15, she tells me with a mixture of resignation and breathless admiration, his completed construction projects included: a photography darkroom in the garage, an underground fort with its own air inlet, a fully wired two-story tree house (which proved a popular hangout for the neighborhood kids), and a go-kart track around the home’s half-acre backyard. Given these precedents, it didn’t seem so strange that her son would eventually attempt to build a mini-brewery in his bedroom! Of course, as a carryover from the Prohibition era, homebrewing was still technically illegal, especially for an underage junior high student. “I was not pleased,” Eleanor recalls. “I don’t approve of drinking, and I especially don’t condone it in children. But at the same time, I wanted to encourage Ken’s creativity. Fortunately, his early beer was undrinkable. Most of it got dumped.”
A natural problem solver
Brother Steve recalls when he first realized that there was something special about Ken’s aptitude for practical problem solving … when Steve’s next car (a 1962 Austin Healey 3000) had a problem engaging first gear, it fell to 15-year-old Ken to rebuild the transmission. He did so without the benefit of an owner’s manual. The only problem—now reverse gear didn’t engage properly. So Ken rebuilt the transmission over, once again through sheer instinct rather than going by the book. This time, all the gears worked fine. As Steve tells me this story, I notice a good-humored sparkle in his eye. But he quickly turns serious. “Ken is probably the best mechanical engineer in the brewery business,” he says adamantly.
Bringing the dream to fruition
They called themselves “Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.” The appellation was [wife] Katie’s idea: at this point in their lives, she and Ken harbored a vague desire to relocate to foothills east of Chico, and naming their company after the mountain range was seen as a way of bringing this dream to fruition.
As of Aug. 31, 1979, they had raised enough money to get started. Grossman and Camusi assembled a business plan and scouted around for a location in Chico where they could fulfill their dreams of producing quality beer.
By today’s standards, the business plan is lofty in ideals but thin on practical details. Grossman still chuckles at the mention of it. Under the heading of Marketing Strategy, it reads: “Sierra Nevada beer will be promoted in relationship to young-adult athletic events: bicycling, running, roller skating, and soccer.” As for Promotion Strategy, the young entrepreneurs were unabashedly starry-eyed: “The Sierra Nevada name will identify the beer with the local gold rush tradition, implying mountain-bred freshness and a romantic aura that will capture the imagination of the young adult market.”
A key endorsement
The first endorsement came from Alice Waters, owner of famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, who started serving Pale Ale at her restaurant in the early ’80s. Since opening its doors in 1971, Chez Panisse had dedicated itself to taste, consistency, environmental stewardship, and the sustenance of local traditions—values shared equally by Grossman and Camusi. Adopting Sierra Nevada beer was, Waters said, consistent with her philosophy of serving only the highest quality products in order to afford the most satisfying dining experience. “The Chez Panisse endorsement was great,” recalls Grossman. “It gave us exposure to foodies and other restaurateurs. Alice was doing innovative things with food. So that was positive for building our brand.” Just as Alice Waters recreated the tastes and flavors of food she had enjoyed as an exchange student in France, Grossman and Camusi were attempting to revive brewing tastes and traditions from the Old World.
Brand building by free advertising via endorsements and word of mouth: this was to become the Sierra Nevada credo. The unofficial company policy on advertising remains to this day, “our advertising comes out of a 12-ounce bottle.” Sierra Nevada continues to avoid advertising in mainstream media (although it does place advertisements in trade journals).
Closing the loop
Cheri Chastain was hired in September 2006 as sustainability coordinator. She has a master’s degree from Chico State in environmental geography. Her task is to bring cohesiveness to the sustainability agenda and to ensure that it is applied comprehensively during Sierra Nevada’s ongoing expansion.
Her favorite mantra is “closing the loop.” She breaks this down for me by explaining its three parts: first, what’s coming into the plant (the raw materials); second, processing (the use of heat, water, steam, and electricity to make the beer); third, waste disposal (reusing and recycling as much as possible and only resorting to throwing away when absolutely necessary). In this way, both upstream and downstream are looked after, she tells me with a satisfied smile.
In recognition of its long-standing adherence to a green ethic, Sierra Nevada won the Sustainable Plant of the Year Award from Food Engineering magazine in 2009.
How do you close the loop?
Partners Camusi and Grossman were featured in the May 25, 1986, San Francisco Examiner magazine.
When, in early 2009, I present this question to Cheri Chastain, Sierra Nevada’s sustainability coordinator, she replies by using the brewery’s nine-acre hop field as an example. Her explanation is worth quoting in full: “We’ve got the hop field on site. We’re using compost that’s made from our by-products. So we’ve got organics leaving our process producing compost that then goes onto the hop field to grow the hops. Starting this spring, we’ll be recycling treated wastewater back onto the hop field to irrigate it. So we’ve got two things leaving our process, water and the organics, which we can recycle back on to the hop field. We then harvest those hops, brewing them for the Chico Estate Harvest Beer, all the while recycling steam for the brewing process, recycling the heat and the cold. And then we’re producing vegetable oil out of the restaurant where people go to have their Chico Estate Harvest Beer along with some fries; the vegetable oil that’s leaving the restaurant produces a biodiesel fuel that goes into the vehicles that we’re using to deliver the beer that was brewed with hops that were grown from recycled water and compost. That’s probably one of my favorite closed loops, and it covers upstream as well as downstream. I really like that one!”
A different profit motive
At Sierra Nevada, the concept of profit is connected to the broader notion of value. Rather than focus on short-term monetary gains, the ethos of the company seems to be guided by a different profit motive: an increase in the value of social capital, cultural capital, community capital, and environmental capital. As Bill Bales, the company’s chief financial officer, points out to me, doing the right thing is wired into Sierra Nevada’s DNA. “It’s our responsibility to give back to the community,” he says. “In most organizations, benevolence is tied to marketing in the form of sponsorships. But in our particular case, we’re not publicly traded so we’re not trying to appease shareholders. We tend to focus on giving back because it is simply the ‘right thing to do.’ ” Among the beneficiaries of this altruistic form of giving are Chico State, UC Davis, Enloe Hospital, The Salvation Army, Western Rivers Conservancy, and National Public Radio.
Sierra Nevada’s progressive waste management practices offer a vivid example of how the value of social capital, cultural capital, community capital, and environmental capital can be increased while still helping to preserve higher profit margins. By diverting over 30,000 tons of waste, the company not only helps keep the local landfill from growing unhealthily, but it also saves $4.7 million in tipping fees. In turn, this extra revenue can then be used to improve employee benefits, upgrade equipment infrastructure, or fund philanthropic projects.
About the author of Hops and Dreams
Rob Burton has taught English at CSU, Chico since 1988. He is the author of Around the World in 52 Words: Ritual Writing for the New Millennium (2002) and Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures (2007).