Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Beer Camp Experience at Sierra Nevada

[Introducing our first guest contributor. I’m sure you will recognize dabudah as an active member of the Oregon beer community. We are very pleased he chose this blog to describe his experiences at Serria Nevada’s 2010 Beer Camp and look forward to any other contributions he makes in the future!]

Recently I won a trip to participate in Sierra Nevada's first consumer Beer Camp in Chico, CA. All of the winning videos can be viewed at: I submitted the Beer Camp Rap but I would recommend viewing all of them as my fellow campers each had a talent. When Fay and I arrived at the pub some folks recognized me from my video entry. We immediately felt welcomed by our gracious hosts. After a Kolsch and Stein Altbier at the brewery pub we headed to the world famous Madison Bear Garden for dinner.
The group consisted of 10 campers from California, 10 campers not from California, and some Sierra Nevada staff. As we headed into the Bear Garden an important decision had to be made: left for food, right for beer. I started right and we got pitchers of a Bitter that was not on at the pub and some Pale Ale. I ordered the special burger and Fay got a dawg. After a short night of drinking we attempted to explore downtown Chico but soon found ourselves leading a group back to the hotel (courtesy of Steve Grossman [thank you]) for some homebrew (knowing our day started at 8am the next morning). 

Our fearless leader, Terence Sullivan, was somewhat amazed when we all showed up ready for camp. We began the first day in a conference room with an overview slide show presented by Steve. He told us that this is the second full year of beer camps after beginning in 2008 with 3 camps. When he and Ken first thought of beer camp they assumed it would top out at 6-7 camps per year. They are now planning on 25 for the next year. Our camp was the first open to general consumers. Past camps have hosted distributors, retailers, and the bar's faithful.

For those unfamiliar with the Sierra Nevada story: it all began in Woodland Hills where the Grossmans would stop by a local homebrewer's kegerator for free beers. When Cal got wise to them he took it upon himself to teach them to brew their own so he could drink more of his own. Ken later moved to Chico and opened a homebrew shop. In 1980 they started the brewery with the equipment Ken had pieced together. The original kettle was 10 BBL and later expanded to 17 BBL. This was used for the first 9 years until Mad River purchased it (where it is still in use). 

Early packaging was in returnable bottles, a popular move in the conscious community of Chico. When they wanted to expand outside of Chico another method was needed. The “Heritage” bottle was chosen because all of the other designs available then were proprietary. Kegging began when they acquired some of A-B's old bung-sided Golden Gate kegs for $15 each.

Ken found the 100 BBL copper brewhouse in Germany in 1985. At the time they thought the brewery would max out at 65,000 BBL/year. Within 2 years they surpassed that mark. In 1989 they hired concrete contractors who have not taken another job since. They now have a 200 BBL Huppmann brewhouse but brought the Copper Smiths out of retirement in Germany to hand-pound the cladding on 2 of the vessels. The largest fermenters are 800 BBLs because that is 4 fills from the big brewhouse. Fermentation becomes less predictible with any more fills. 

The new Krones bottling lines each produce 600 bottles/minute versus 400 on the old Krones line. All of the bottles are conditioned 2 weeks at 60 degrees Farenheit. Sierra Nevada conserves their CO2 and recaptures the excess produced in fermentation.

Many of the decisions at Sierra Nevada consider the environment. They currently use about 5:1 water to beer produced, including the restaurant. This is close to the stated goal of 3.5:1 by the larger American breweries and should continue to improve. There is a waste-water treatment plant on-site and I believe some of the gas produced there helps feed the Fuel Cells. An impressive solar array provides a large portion of their energy. A vegetable garden provides fresh produce to the restaurant. It is refreshing to see a company put this much effort into their true bottom line than focusing solely on profits (and many of these decisions may increase that aspect down the road as well). The long term outlook and Ken's mechanical aptitude provide a solid basis for Sierra Nevada's growth.
Another refreshing feature is constant innovation through the pilot brewery. The pilot system that we would be brewing on is a 10 BBL, 5 vessel brewhouse produced by Mueller. This system has been in use for 7 years. The next part of camp was to determine the recipe we would make. Our camp had been tossing ideas around via email and we all liked hops. We decided to aim for about 9.3% ABV and 100+ IBUs. The grain bill included Pale Malt, Golden Promise, Munich, Light Crystal and a small bit of Special B. The hops included an experimental “Super Chinook,” Citra, Centennial, and wet Estate Chinooks in the hopback. It will be dry-hopped with Citra and then torpedoed in the Brite with Simcoe and Amarillo.

After settling on the recipe we began to tour the facility. We started the tour paralleling the brewing process. First with the raw materials; one unique feature of Sierra Nevada relative to other craft brewers is their nearby rail spur used to bring in trainloads of grain from Canada. 

We did not make it out to the rail spur and accompanying barley fields but we did see the massive (50,000#) grain silos. From there the grain goes through a special Huppmann mill that wets the grain to eliminate shredded husks. Sierra Nevada utilizes one of these in each brewhouse, 3 of only a handful in use in this country.
From the mill to the mash tun to the lauter tun to the kettle, we ended up in the middle of the 200bbl brewhouse. The facility is kept immaculately clean. Each walls is adorned with images of the brewing process. The bodies all feature the same guy but each “character” is representative of a brewery employee. The attention to detail is evident everywhere you look. Another key to Sierra Nevada's success is their insistence on using only whole hops. We saw tremendous stores of hops as this format requires much more space to store than pellets (or dare I say...extract). I believe the use of whole hops adds a wholly unique character unobtainable with a processed product. We then traveled underneath the brewing vessels and saw the large hop strainer required to remove the whole hops.

Once the wort travels from the brewhouse to the fermenters it needs to be pitched with yeast. The yeast handling facilities at Sierra Nevada are larger than some breweries in Portland. After the yeast room and fermentation cellar I wandered off from the group. It was at this point I found the partying Bigfoot tile! When I caught back up with everyone they were on their first sample of the day, bad timing on my part. All I had to do was ask though and I received a fresh sample of Draft Pale Ale...turns out the bottled product is different from the kegs (difficult to condition that many kegs!) and the only place to feature the bottled version on draft is at the brewery's pub.

After we finished our samples we made our way through the yard witnessing spent grain shooting out into a truck. On the far end we made our way past the hop processing facility and through the garden to the hop fields. Everyone got a chance to cut down a few of the remaining bines that we then loaded on a golf cart to bring back to the hop picker. Lau instructed us on feeding the base of the bine into the picker and ensuring it is untangled as it feeds into the machine. The machine does not like to run idle so bines must be continually fed to appease its appetite. It was amazing watching hop cones shoot out separated from the rest of the material.
After working up an appetite performing our agricultural duties we proceeded to the pub for lunch. I ordered a sampler tray and was dumbfounded by the variety of beers included (~20). The menu featured brewery grain fed beef, wild salmon, and fresh vegetables from the garden. We met with the group from California for the meal and then parted ways again to head to the laboratory. 

Most of the machines were beyond me but we did get to see yeast up close and personal. We also saw the “coolest” place in the brewery: the cryogenic freezer that preserves yeast samples for the next millenium. After swabbing something for analysis (I ran it across the rim of my water bottle) it was time for some more beverages.

We boarded the bike bar (I grabbed a seat next to the taps) and peddled over to packaging while Andrew kept our cups full. Terence was the DJ and navigator though his shifting skills were brought into question (imagine coordinating 12 drinking folk to stop and start peddling together). 

Our first stop in packaging was the break room where our musically inclined group instantly grabbed the guitar off of the wall. Slinky Cobblestone warmed us up and then Dave Mulligan performed his Sierra Nevada jingle while Slinky slinked. We ran off one employee on his break and another put up with us but did not seem to enjoy the racket. We then saw the impressive Krones bottling line and I learned (and forgot) how to decipher the bottling code. We continued on to another hop storeroom, past the kegging line, and small batch bottling line. The afternoon seemed to wrap up quickly and we found ourselves back in the pub for more beers and music.

The next morning we met early at the brewery for a quick breakfast and then on to the brewday. I missed the memo about Tie-dye Friday but enjoyed a breakfast bagel. We had coffee but no water so I asked Terence where I could fill up and he led me to the brewery's treated water supply, delicious. The group then met with Scott at the Pilot brewhouse and weighed out grain. Our first batch was already underway and looking good. We took some group photos and then headed down to weigh out our hops. I encouraged some of my fellow campers to beef up their buckets a bit and I think we ended up with an extra pound of Citra hops and a handful of fresh hops shipped overnight from Yakima the night before. I had pushed for Centennials to be included in the recipe but their were none on hand so I made a mental note to come back for those. Since we had the brew under control the group headed to the cellar to taste some previous Beer Camp beers including a Belgian-style IPA.

Tom Dalldorf from the Celebrator showed up so we headed for another tasting. I hung back to add the Centennials and some more fresh Cascade hops from Yakima (only a few, I swear!). The group had disappeared at this point so I ended up in the pilot brewhouse until after the hop addition. "" helped me find the rest of the group in the 200bbl cellar. I missed the first tasting (again) of Estate Harvest Ale but got a sample before we left. 

We spent some time pontificating the nuances of the barrel aged Bigfoot that will be blended in the fourth 30th anniversary beer. Then we swiped some barrel aged Life and Limb from a secret stash and regrouped in the Big Room. Tom recorded some more musical performances there and then we made our way back to the pub.

After lunch was a tour of the R&D labs. We passed around some swabs of pure aromas (myrcene, DMS, and some others). What better way to top off a great day of tastings than to test our sensory perception? We proceeded to Sensory and were separated in tasting booths to attempt two triangle tests. The first test was 2 fresh Pale Ale samples and 1 spiked with Skunky mercaptans. My fatigued palate failed to identify this one correctly (or maybe I just liked that skunky aroma?) but I successfully detected the next test which was an aged sample. Our group reassembled for a preference test and we picked the pub-only Pale Ale over the Draft Pale Ale by a 6-4 margin in a blind taste (I preferred the malty balance of the Draft at this point in the day).

Our day was nearing an end and we still needed to name our brew so we utilized a white board in the Sensory lab. After much thoughtful brainstorming and debate we narrowed the choices down to Hopsichord and Mulligan. We were deadlocked at 5-5 and none of the Sierra Nevada staff would brave the tiebreaker so we chose Hopsichord by a coin flip. 

Ebullient over this decision we stopped by the gift shop (and tried to pay Sierra Nevada back from some of their graciousness) before heading back to the pub for one more round of drinks and dinner. Ken Grossman's son, Brian, had some special visitors from Russian River and we interrupted their trip for some pictures and autographs (it must be tough being a beer celebrity). Around this time Fay showed up with a special visitor of her own (her grandma Candy) and I headed back to the hotel to freshen up. We had one last dinner at the pub and then said our goodbyes. Beer Camp was a wonderful experience and I am glad for all of the new friends I made. Hopefully some of them can join us in Beervana in the future for more beery good times.


Ron Ares said...

A great narrative and tour of my favorite 'production' brewery. I could have put both my kids through college on the amount of Sierra Nevada I've had over the years. Seriously. Great post!

Bill Night said...

Oh man, you told me about Beer Camp today, but I didn't know you wrote it up. Nice job, sounds like it was a great time!

Unknown said...

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