Driving down I-5 to the Bay Area recently, I diverted in the valley to Chico, Calif. to check out the Sierra Nevada plant. The last tour of the day was forming up and our guide started out with good news: we would begin in the tasting room, where brewery tours typically end. The reason, she explained, was that she had extra duties that evening, setting up for the opening day of the traveling beer camp.
Lollapalooza! Sierra had just opened their east coast plant, near Asheville, N.C., and was celebrating with a dozen excellent collaborations with top-tier brewers around the country, from Oregon (Ninkasi) to Florida (Cigar City), from San Diego (Stone, Ballast Point) to Maine (Allagash). The opening party, in a
Tour time. Our guide had other chores but she gave us a fine experience all the same, In a large room dominated by the upper parts of a 200-bbl brew kettle. A small pitcher of wort, drawn from the mash tun, was poured into sampling cups so we could taste the sweetish brown liquid that will meet hops and yeast and become our ambrosia.
Still, this was a fine experience, and to have it in a brewery nearing a million barrels a year in sales made it even better. Bitter and better.
The last stop on the tour was to the bottoms of the huge 800-bbl fermenters. The purchase of these monsters bought Sierra a bit more time before ever-increasing demand stretched this plant to its full capacity (977,00 bbls last year). I learned this by buying and reading Beyond the Pale (2013) by Ken Grossman, who started this brewery in 1980 (medieval time in craft brewing history). Grossman writes that he was inspired to write this business and personal autobiography in part after Sam Calagione published his Brewing Up a Business, about how he began Dogfish Head Brewing in 1995. Now, having read both books, here is my take: Calagione has written a wonderfully entertaining book in the how to succeed in business category, his business happens to be beer. You know those titles in airport bookstores, using 6-sigma to take your company to the next level? Sam C. tries to write general truths that will work for a scissors manufacturer as well as a beer maker. Ken G., on the other hand, has written a beer book, plain and simple. A reader can learn a lot about brewing processes, dealing with distributors, hop and barley growers, and all the rest.
These two men are among the most successful craft brewers today, and they sound like friends, Each has chosen to tell his story in his own way: Calagione shows his passion for unusual beers as intellectual curiosity, while Grossman just lays his heart on the table and lets the reader watch it beat. The excruciating pain of buying out his original partner. the guilt he keeps alluding to about the neglect of his family life, the agony of when to spend money he didn't have, in the early days, this makes a gripping story. Later, with a successful business, his chapters get a little dull, like the CEO's message in a corporate annual report. But to have started in 1980, 35 years ago, and to be where his company is today, is worth a salute from all who love good beer.