The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Review by Andrew Lovgren
At one point or another, every homebrewer fantasizes about starting a brewery. Even in the midst of the current craft brewing revolution, very few hobby-brewers ever actually make the leap to full scale. Back in the late 1970s, Ken Grossman took his favorite hobby and turned it into what is now a fixture in craft brewing: Chico, California based Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.
Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. tells the incredible tale of the company from the perspective of the founder himself. Grossman’s long, winding journey is told in this (sort-of) autobiography through a sort of stream of consciousness, edited into a very easy, chronological read. Though each page moves Grossman and Sierra Nevada closer to success, many of the chapters left me in amazement that Sierra Nevada ever came to be.
Whether you are a homebrewer, professional brewer, or just someone who loves good beer, the book provides a peek behind the curtain into the work involved to create a meaningful brew. The easy flowing chapters are separated into subheads, which helps create a very conversational feel, as though Grossman was simply sharing a beer and discussing his business. While the focus is on Sierra Nevada, many of the chapters provide general knowledge to help readers better understand the intricacies of the general brewing process.
Ken’s tale begins with a personal history including the various projects he undertook as a child, from an outbuilding to an electric doorlock for his room. Constructing trinkets and his desire to experiment led to a fascination with homebrewing and eventually a career path.
When Grossman first began, brewing beer at home was still technically illegal. Thanks in large part to lax enforcement of the outdated law, he was later able to start a small homebrew shop (succinctly named The Homebrew Shop) to share his passion and help support his wife, Katie, and newborn daughter, Sierra. Raising children while balancing several jobs was a learning process and took its toll, but Grossman found a way to power through with an immense amount of support from his family. In the late 1970s when Grossman made the leap with his partner, Paul Camusi, very few breweries were remaining in the U.S. apart from the major domestic beer makers.
Starting a brewery with a focus on quality ingredients and full-hop flavor profiles was a major risk at a time when lighter beers were in demand. When they started the brewery in 1979, Sierra Nevada’s flagship Pale Ale was one of the hoppiest beers on the market at 37 measly IBUs. Ken’s book drives home the process in fantastic detail. As difficult as it is to open a brewery today, the obstacles faced in the ‘70s were viewed by many to be insurmountable.
Grossman was working at The Homebrew Shop and faced two options: purchase a bike shop or start a brewery.
“Running a bicycle shop in a college town would have ensured a steady income, whereas as opening a small brewery promised to be a tremendous challenge with little chance of succeeding.”
Obviously, he went with his passion instead of taking the other, easier route. With little financial capital of his own, he had to ask family and friends to help fund the brewery. In order to save as much as possible, it was crucial that Grossman do much of the construction work himself, going so far as to utilize scrap metal to create his original equipment. The financials were a crucial part in the process, of course, but the book focuses a bit more on this than almost any other aspect, sometimes going on for an extended period. These sections are great for business-minded beer-lovers.
The rough patches for the brewery, along with how Grossman managed to pull Sierra Nevada through, provided the most interesting moments in Beyond the Pale. From a broken homemade grain mill to troubles with his partner in a poor business deal, Grossman weathered plenty of storms even before the first brew was done in 1980. The company was able to expand to a brand-new building in the late 1980s, expanding their capacity from their maxed-out 7,000 barrels to a potential of 60,000 barrels per year.
Fast forward to 1992 and Sierra Nevada had not only built a new brewery, but the company was meeting the 60,000 barrel limit and looking to continue moving forward. Today, Sierra Nevada produces over 750,000 barrels with more expansion on the way.
Today, more breweries are sprouting up each month across America, each with a unique set of opportunities and challenges. Beyond the Pale addresses many of the challenges that come with the brewing industry. At the same time, the autobiography casts an exciting light on an industry that continues to gain momentum. Though it’s a quick read, the roughly 300 page book is packed with tons of interesting information. The book touches on everything from how the Sierra Nevada name was chosen to the company’s sustainability efforts and future plans. Ken’s son, Brian Grossman, is working on a new expansion brewery in North Carolina, highlighting the continued growth and development of the company and leaving plenty of pages for Ken and his family to fill in the future.
And if the next 30 years are anything like the brewery’s first, it will be a fantastic story.