Around the world, Sierra Nevada’s craft brews are ranked among the best. Around Chico, Sierra Nevada is known as much for their restaurant and Big Room concerts as their beer (which we also revere). Their Oktoberfest tickets sell out within mere hours.
Sierra Nevada’s sustainability efforts are also legendary. The EPA named them Green Business of the Year in 2010. Their innovations go well beyond the 10,751 solar panels installed in Chico. You will find locally raised livestock that were fed on spent grain from the brewery on their menu. The Chico facility boasts its own waste water treatment plant and a 2MW microturbine system. If you drive by at the right time of year, you will see sheep conducting weed control in the demonstration hop yard.
Founded in Chico in 1980 by Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi (who later sold his shares to Grossman), Sierra Nevada opened a second brewery in Mills River, North Carolina, in 2014.
Q&A with Sierra Nevada founder, Ken Grossman
What are you best known for?
Sierra Nevada is best known for our Pale Ale—the green label provides easy recognition. As proud as I am of that product, I’m even prouder that we’re known for producing beers that are consistently of the highest quality. Being able to make a product on the scale that we do without flaws or variation is difficult—we do a great deal of quality control to ensure that Pale Ale, and all of our products, tastes the same no matter where you get it.
How did you end up in Chico?
I landed in Chico after a post-graduation bicycle tour and have been here ever since. I was initially drawn to the town for its bicycling and other outdoor activity opportunities, as well as its laid back feel. When I decided to open my own brewery I knew it would be in a small, rural area in California. I looked at other options but found that Chico met our needs the best. Being situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range was also definitely part of the appeal.
Tell us about the early years.
I was motivated to start Sierra Nevada by my passion for brewing and a sense of restlessness when I was in my twenties. I spent my first years in Chico running a bike shop and then opened my own homebrew shop. I enjoyed both pursuits, but there came a time when I knew I’d never be satisfied if I didn’t open my own brewery and see if it could be successful. There were very few breweries in America by the 1970s and most of them produced some version of a bland pilsner. I wanted to make the kind of beer I wanted to drink—hoppy and flavorful. I knew it was a long shot, but I had to try.
The first few years were really hard. My partner and I thought we had a good business plan, but we underestimated how much capital we needed to get the brewing equipment we needed. I took classes in welding and refrigeration at Butte College so that I’d have the skills to retrofit old dairy equipment into brewing equipment; using salvaged equipment saved us money, but it also took a lot more time and effort. It took us much longer to open than we anticipated, but I was determined not to start selling beer until we could produce our Pale Ale consistently. When we finally got there in the spring of 1981, my partner and I made our first sales calls in downtown Chico, carrying an ice chest of beer with us.
How has Sierra Nevada changed over time?
Sierra Nevada has grown drastically since 1980. When we brewed our first batch of beer we had three employees (myself, my partner, and a part-time employee). Now we have more than one-thousand employees spread across the country and two breweries. Even though we struggled financially the first few years, a lot of that stemmed from needing to find a way to increase our capacity. Brewing infrastructure is not inexpensive, so we put a great deal of what we made back into our original Gilman Way brewery. Then, in 1986, the San Francisco Examiner featured an article about Sierra Nevada in their Sunday magazine. “The Beer That’s Making Chico Famous” was really a turning point for us and we were in a constant, frantic state of growth after that and soon had to look for a new location.
Still, when we originally designed the 20th St. location, we thought we’d be lucky to get to 60,000 barrels per year (for reference, we’ve since crested one million barrels per year). Our pace never really slowed down, so neither did our growth. The 20th St. brewery has changed enormously from when we opened it. It feels like we’re in an almost constant state of construction. These days, much of it is driven by our need to create work space for our growing employee body. For a long time, we didn’t do much marketing and relied on word of mouth promotion instead. As the craft industry has taken off and the number of American breweries has grown exponentially, we’ve had to readjust our thinking and bring on a bigger sales and marketing staff to help us compete and remain successful. It’s certainly a change in how we operate since we were a production-focused company for so long. I think we’ve grown into the shift in the last few years and have found a middle ground between production and marketing that works for us.
Describe your company culture.
Our company culture remains very driven by our humble beginnings. I am innately frugal, a trait that helped a lot in our early years when money was constantly short. We’ve always lived by the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle”—at first because we had to, but now because it’s just the right thing to do. I’ve always been determined to find a way to leave the smallest environmental footprint as possible. The brewing process is inherently resource intensive, but my employees and I always look for ways to use less. Saving energy and water has always played a huge role in how we work. I’m also happy to invest in new technology that might help us be more sustainable—sometimes doing the right thing is more important than return on investment.
Some people have described Sierra Nevada’s company culture as “work hard, play hard,” and I think it fits. We demand a great deal of effort from our employees, but we also try to celebrate our successes.
Being able to maintain Sierra Nevada’s culture was something our leadership team talked about a lot when we decided to open a second brewery. We knew it would be hard to replicate what we’ve done here, but one of the things that drew us to Asheville, North Carolina, was how similar it is to Chico. It has the same small(ish) town feel, emphasis on enjoying the outdoors, and pride for local products.