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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sierra Nevada is 40 -- an interview with Ken Grossman

Sierra Nevada Brewing is 40 years old this year. They've released a 40th anniversary beer (6.0%, 65 IBU), I suspect there will be much hoopla later in the year, even for a company such as this that is still using labels that look almost exactly the way they did 40 years ago.

Ken Grossman has been at the helm from the beginning, and running things solo for over half that time. He's starting to step back now (more about that below), but make no mistake: Ken made Sierra Nevada what it is, what it became, and what it's been. There have been huge contributions from other folks, but Ken's hand is on the tiller.

I got an opportunity to interview him today, and I wanted to get that right up. I also sampled the 40th, and tasting notes are at the end of the interview. (As is usually the case, I talked to Ken on the phone and took down what he was saying as fast as I could...but some of this is direct quote, some of it is paraphrase. When I had problems, I asked him to repeat himself. Generally, though, he was pretty thoughtful and slow.)

I'm in italics, Ken is in plain type. I didn't do my usual bolding except for the first few words to make it easier to pick out when things stop and start, and a few things I found exceptionally interesting, like the statement on Sierra Nevada hard seltzer, and one of the "argued over" issues, and the Sierra Nevada whiskey that never happened.

Ladies and gentlemen: Ken Grossman, founder and owner of Sierra Nevada. 

Congratulations on 40 years! I've been drinking Sierra Nevada on the regular since 1987, and enjoying the hell out of the ride. But my favorite Sierra Nevada beer is still the Pale Ale, which I never tire of (my wife splits her fave: Celebration when it's in season, Torpedo when it's not). Do you have a favorite year-round or annual from the line-up?

I drink Pale, but I don't stick with one style. I drink through the portfolio pretty regularly. In the past few weeks, I had Porter, 40th, Bigfoot, Pale, and some of our new Kombucha. I went over to [the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room in] Berkeley and tried some of the small batch beers there. I try to always keep tasting and enjoying everything. I'll rotate through the seasonals when they first come out. I really enjoyed the Bigfoot this year. You know, I get that question a lot, and I usually tell them it's like trying to pick your favorite child.

Yeah, sorry, people ask me my favorite whiskey all the time. But it brings up a sadder question: which Sierra Nevada beer that didn't make year-round or regular annual status do you miss the most? For me: Glissade, a wonderful lager we still talk about. How about you?

Glissade, that was a great beer. There are plenty of them, but the realities of the market, the support you need from wholesale and retail involves a certain velocity. So even if the beer's fantastic, if the volume's not enough, the retailers will pull it, the wholesalers see that, and we're supporting something that, for whatever reason, isn't making it. Do we want a brand that's not in a good growth mode, or something that's more where the consumers' tastes are? And it might be tastes, might be the branding, or it might be something else. Hazy Little Thing took off more than we expected last year, it was 98% growth. It caught us a bit off guard. We'd predicted 40,000 bbls. First year doubled that, and then doubled that again.

The 40th seems to be a very Sierra Nevada beer: a 3C (Cluster, Cascade, Centennial hops) IPA, relatively dry, and a very drinkable 6%. But what about the oats and acidulated malt? Is that a regular thing that I just don't know about, or is it something different for this beer?

We do oats in quite a few beers for the mouthfeel; in intentionally hazy beers we use a lot of them. We do use levels of acidulated malt in a number of beers, just for balance of acid. It's a malt that goes through a lactic step before kilning, it helps with pH balance, gives a softness in the flavor.

The hops...we were trying to go back to 1980. Cluster was the American hop, Cascade wasn't quite as popular then as it would be, and then Centennial would come later, the super-Cascade.

You know, Cluster never really got a fair shake in America. It's been around for years in variants. This aromatic hop, it was so different from what the German brewers were used to using, those subtle Noble hops. The American brewers were mostly German trained, so they weren't used to that in-your-face aroma. But it was considered an acceptable source of bittering, not as an aroma hop. As more aggressive, higher-alpha (acid) hops were bred, the Clusters fell to the wayside. It has a unique character, and we've played with it in various formulations. It's about 6% Alpha, and you've got bittering hops with triple that now. It doesn't yield that well (per acre), and doesn't have a competitive place as a bittering hop. We've grown some Cluster, and we've gone out and picked wild Clusters outside of Chico [in the area of an old hop farm]. It adapted to the climate down here and does well for what it is. It seemed like a no-brainer.

Cascade we used in a lot of our early beers, and Centennial is just a great all-round hop. You've probably heard of beers that are focused on Centennial that are in the top few beers in the country.

It's hard being an established and large craft brewer these days. It hardly seems fair, to have done the hard pioneer work, to be making some of the best beers you've ever made, and see attention and sales go to new, small, "cool kid" brewers. Is there a path to continued success as a large craft brewer? Do you just keep making good beer?

That's table stakes. The majority of the small brewers are now making good beer. To be considered in the competitive set when people pick a beer to buy, we have to make great beer. We've been innovating, spreading our wings. We're looking at other alcohol beverages than beer. We just put on our first hard kombucha. We've got a great team put together for using bacteria and other yeasts.

We're about to release Wild Little Thing, a lactic, somewhat tart beer, should be out in a few months. Just tasted the latest batch. We want to appeal to a wider band of beer drinker. Hazy Little Thing appeals to people who are not necessarily core Sierra Nevada drinkers, may not even be aware of the traditional Sierra Nevada beers.

And we're working in alternatives: Kombucha is one, and we're looking at others. I don't know that we'll do an alcoholic spritzer. We'll want it to have some more meaning and soul, more in line with what we are than just fermenting sugar and putting flavor in it. The Kombucha we hope will appeal to a similar consumer. We worked really hard at making it, the cultures are ones we intentionally put together. Most of them are combinations of yeast and bacteria that just happened, passed on from a friend's uncle. We've been purposeful about that: a little funky but not a lot, lower alcohol, organic. I think it has a lot more to offer a drinker that wants something that's better for them. We wouldn't call it a health beverage, but the things people are concerned about: carbs, alcohol, it meets those needs in an organic package.

But to get back to your question? Just make great beer and keep up with the changing drinker. We have to, you know. The younger folks drink more than us as we age.

Looking back on all that you've done -- starting a successful family-owned business, creating the American pale ale and American barleywine styles, pioneering estate brewing and wet hop brewing, going solar, creating 100s of jobs -- what things are you the most proud of having accomplished?

There is a lot. The industry is nothing like what I thought it was going to be 40 years ago, more than 40 years ago, when I was trying to raise money. (Brewing industry pundit) Bob Weinberg was predicting the beer industry would be down to 2 or 3 breweries in 1990.

I'm proud we were part of the revolution that changed the face of beer in America, and set the stage for a change of beer on a global scale. The breweries here weren't innovating, didn't have the cachet of countries like Czech, Germany, UK. And now it's come full circle, we're known for beer more than those people. I played a part in that transformation, and I'm proud of that. Some of our early labels and tools are in the Smithsonian, from our fledgling industry. And with Boulder (Brewing) closing, we're the last man standing, and haven't been sold, so we're the oldest of the pioneers. 

Any regrets? Anything you wish you'd done, or Sierra Nevada could have made happen, or in the way craft brewing has turned out?

I wouldn't say regrets. I talked to Fritz Maytag about this when I saw him at the Smithsonian. One of the things I wanted to do in 1980, and I still have the copper pot I was going to do it with: I was going to make an American scotch whisky in 1980. We did supply some wash for St. George back in the late 1980s. One of the guys was just saying a couple months ago, 'If you'd done that when you first got here, you'd have 30 year old whiskey now!'  (Would you, though? Would you have kept some that long?!) I like to think we'd have kept at least one bottle!

You've always seemed like a very 'no drama' kind of guy, and Sierra Nevada reflects that: solid, continuing brands, packaging that rarely changes, beers that clearly pay homage to classics, but often make solid advances. Why has Sierra Nevada been so steady all these years, still the same beers at the core, still the same colors and graphics? Is it because of your company culture and your personality, or is it something you could do because you were in this very, very early? Is that a strategy you've followed because it worked, or because it's the way you know? 

Several times over the years we've hired firms to do a major refresh of the pale ale. It ended up being the artwork for the XXX package. That's one of the versions that was done for refreshing Pale Ale. There was internal angst about such a big shift – and I love that label – but our family argued over that. That statement on the sixpack; that's one of the things we argued about! 

We see other brewers – what's the industry saying, every time you do a package refresh you get a 5% sales bump? But I've seen some brewers go through a half dozen or more in ten years and I think it can do damage to brand equity. I don't think it's all upside. Some brands need a refresh, but every year or two seems like a lot. A homebrewer friend did the original labels, he was in the Maltose Falcons club. Chuck Bennett.

You've got 40 years in, more than that, counting start-up. That's a career for most people. Are you looking to hang up your boots any time soon? Is there an exit strategy for Ken Grossman, and what does the company look like on the other side of it?

We hired a CEO, promoted the COO Jeff White into that last year. I've been slowly unloading stuff that I'd rather not be doing. I'm working less, trying to work myself out of the job. I like the technical stuff, so I still play a role in that. I've got two children involved in the business out here. Brian oversees the customer experience side at all three places. Sierra is on the people side and in the leadership group.

I'm just trying to stay out of people's way, and I stick my fingers in where it makes sense. My wife is always after me to work less, so I took a bike ride this morning, I only have one meeting after this, and then I'll head home. I have a woodshop and a metalshop at home. I bought a welder and a lathe, first pieces of equipment I bought, and I've still got 'em both. 

Thanks, Ken. For everything. 




Tasting Notes on Sierra Nevada 40th Hoppy Anniversary Ale -- Oh, that beautiful fresh yeast smell. Nothing like a Sierra Nevada ale. Beer's a little bit hazy, with an apricot nectar color and a crunchy white head. Noses pine and pith, with a bit of orange candy. It plays slick but sharp on the tongue, with firm hop flavor -- that pine and citrus again -- but not the gripping bitterness of a Celebration.

In fact, this is a beautiful feat of brewing: they've taken the basic building blocks of their brewing, a brewing tradition (you can certainly say that after 40 years of it) that includes Pale Ale, Bigfoot, Celebration, Torpedo, Tropical Torpedo, and Hazy Little Thing...and once again they've taken those basic ingredients and created a beer that slides into that formation without infringing on any of the others, and yet clearly belongs in that formation. These are all beers that are individuals, and only Bigfoot does that by being hugely different. 40th does it almost all with mouthfeel. Well done!


1 comment:

Scoats said...

I had a 40th at Grey Lodge last night. Wow what a beer. So much packed into a 6% ABV envelope. Rather than release a crazy over the top 40th Anniversary beer, they did it their way. So very Sierra Nevada.