Brewer Highlight Holiday 2019

KEN GROSSMAN of Sierra Nevada

Founder Ken Grossman celebrates Sierra Nevada’s 40th anniversary, but continues to look ahead with new innovations for 2020 and beyond.

Next year, one of craft beer’s most cherished and important breweries, Sierra Nevada, will celebrate its 40th anniversary. In 1980, Ken Grossman effectively launched the west coast craft beer revolution that we know today by building his barrelhouse from scratch and brewing one of the world’s most iconic beers, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. This fall, the original brewing system will hit the road, crisscrossing the country so folks can brew something new, and sample the unique beers made by Sufferfest Brewery – the only acquisition ever made by Sierra Nevada.

While it’s a feat for any brewery to notch 40 years in the business, Grossman has never been one to rest on his laurels. With their first-ever brewery acquisition of Sufferfest, the explosion of Hazy Little Thing IPA and even more new beers on the horizon, Sierra Nevada continues to make history, year in and year out.

Grossman made time to chat with Draught Lines from his Chico, CA brewery and gave us the scoop on what’s ahead for Sierra’s year of celebration.

Draught Lines (D.L.) First of all, a huge congratulations on your upcoming anniversary. What’s it like to be in business for all these years?

Ken Grossman (K.G.) Hard to believe it’s been that long! We’re excited to celebrate and look back at where we’ve been. But we’re even more excited for what’s to come.

D.L. What’s in store for next year’s celebration?

K.G. We have tons of events scheduled and new beers planned to honor our 40th anniversary. Should be one of the biggest parties we’ve ever thrown. In early January, we’re releasing our 40 Hoppy Anniversary Ale. It’s a classic IPA [6% ABV] that will showcase the bold flavors and aromas of a West Coast IPA: intense pine and citrus with a deep gold color and slight caramel sweetness.

D.L. We’ve also heard rumors of an old, fabled brewhouse making an appearance in 2020.

K.G. I guess the cat is out of the bag. For almost 30 years, the folks at Mad River Brewing have been making beer with my original 17-barrel brewhouse system, the one I built way back when. In anticipation of our anniversary, we’ve completely restored it so we can drive it around the country this year. Our first stop was the Great American Beer Festival where people stopped by and helped brew a batch of beer on our original system. It was pretty cool.

D.L. With all the renewed focus on the importance of flagship beers (#FlagshipFebruary was trending earlier this year) how does Pale Ale fit into that landscape?

K.G. Pale Ale was the breakout beer we brewed on that 17-barrel system all those years ago, but it remains a true classic. It was recently named one of the “Best Beers in America” by the American Homebrewers Association. This means a lot to me, more than I can put into words. The recipe hasn’t changed since 1980. It tastes like a fresh English bitter, but it’s hop-forward, the way we like it in the US. We feel it belongs in everyone’s refrigerator, from entry-level craft drinkers, all the way up to the experts. Look for new “retro” labels in April 2020.

D.L. With Pale Ale representing the beers we expect from Sierra Nevada, how do your more recent releases hint at Sierra’s path forward?

K.G. Hazy Little Thing IPA has taken off like a rocket. We launched it just two years ago and it’s already our most popular beer on draught [the brewery’s #1 on-premise brand]. It’s not a secret that hazy IPAs are huge right now, but Craft Business Daily reported that Hazy Little Thing is three times bigger than the next biggest hazy, so that’s a big win for us. It’s also one of the only shelf-stable, nationally distributed hazy IPAs out there. Achieving that level of quality was important to us, and I think you’re seeing it be acknowledged by consumers. It’s been a bigger success than we ever anticipated.

D.L. Can you tell us more about your recent partnership with Sufferfest?

K.G. Sufferfest is our first ever acquisition and we couldn’t be more excited. They’re a San Francisco-based beer company that specializes in beer with ingredients that benefit athletes like long-distance runners. I met [Sufferfest founder] Caitlin Landesberg at a conference and we really hit it off. She’s so passionate about what Sufferfest is doing. There weren’t any beers out there that addressed the nutritional needs of hard-charging athletes. So she became a brewer and made them herself.

D.L. Why was Sufferfest such a great fit for Sierra Nevada?

K.G. Well, beyond their great products and inspired leadership, like Sierra Nevada, Sufferfest is a values-driven company. They’re a Certified B Corporation, (we’re in the process of being certified ourselves at the moment), which means they’re a business that meets the highest standards of social and environmental performance. We also share a commitment to innovation, which is a must in today’s industry.

D.L. What beers make up the Sufferfest lineup?

K.G. Their flagship, Repeat, is a 95-calorie, 5-carb Kolsch-style beer brewed with bee pollen; Head Start is a stout brewed with coconut & coffee and FKT is a pale ale made with black current.

D.L. This past year was also notable for Sierra Nevada because of your Resilience Butte County Proud IPA & the Camp Fire Relief Fund. Can you tell us more about that endeavor?

K.G. Almost 15,000 homes were destroyed in California by wildfires last November. Our Chico brewery was spared, but 50 of our employees lost their homes. The devastation was horrific. We created Resilience and asked brewers to make it and sell it with the understanding that they would make zero margin… all the profits had to go to the relief fund. Suppliers donated ingredients and 1,400 brewers, some in Japan and New Zealand, participated. I was amazed and so proud to be part of the brewing community.

D.L. With 40 years in the review mirror, what’s in store for the next 40?

K.G. We will continue to evolve, continue to brew great beer and continue to push boundaries, whether that’s in the brewhouse, with sustainability or in the great outdoors.

Sierra, Brian and Ken Grossman

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Draught Lines is a seasonal magazine dedicated to the craft beer experience.