It’s going to be hard to write about this without sounding like a braggart or a fangirl, but here goes: I went to Sierra Nevada Beer Camp. [Insert fangirl squeal here.]
As far as Beer Camp is known at all, it’s mostly known as an annual contest for homebrewers. Winners get to go to Sierra Nevada’s headquarters in Chico, CA and brew a beer for commercial production. I had no idea until recently that there are beer industry Beer Camps every few weeks. Most of the beers produced on these junkets don’t see store shelves, but they do hit bars in campers’ local markets.
(If you don’t want to wade through my wordy account, click here to skip to the pictures.)
How many beer industry employees does it take to change a light bulb?
Beer Camp #53 was Rebecca Boyles from Beer Revolution (who brought me), three Brewers Association employees, the manager of a beer bar in Oregon, and a group of distributors from Arizona. It’s hard to get a big group of people to agree on anything, let alone a beer recipe. It was up to Scott Jennings to get a consensus. He’s the guy who gest to make crazy one-offs on Sierra Nevada’s 10 barrel pilot system — a fun-sounding job even by beer industry standards. After leading more than 50 of these discussions, Scott is really good at steering the group towards something everyone can live with.
A lot of ideas were tossed around, including canteloupe wheat, rauchbier, chili beer, and orange wit. Perhaps because many of the suggestions involved adjuncts, many of them seasonal, suddenly we were talking about botanicals. We eventually decided on an IPA made with local rose petals and rose hips. After a second haggling and voting session the next day over lunch, the beer was christened Long Stem IPA. My fellow camper Andy from the Brewers Association snagged the brewers log if you want to peek at the technical details.
To be sure, Scott did most of the hard work on brew day, but he was also very good at dividing up the day into small tasks so everyone could participate a little bit, and we got a good look at every angle of the process. Getting set loose in Sierra Nevada’s hop room to measure out pounds and pounds of Centennial was an experience my nose will not soon forget. Even hosing down a fermenter is fun on this sort of scale (if only I got a similar kick out of cleaning my homebrew equipment). I’ve hung out in plenty of breweries in my time, but this was a new level of geek-out.
They’re not going to let you at the fermenters, but you could approximately copy other aspects of Beer Camp on your own with a trip to Chico.
For one, The Sierra Nevada Taproom is really fun. We’re talking 16 Sierra Nevada beers on tap and probably a few you can’t find anywhere else. Good food, too, complete with beer pairing suggestions on the menu. The bar area gets packed with friendly locals unwinding after work.
If you’re used to hanging out at small breweries, touring a facility Sierra Nevada’s size is eye-opening. It’s worth it for the massive bottling line alone. It’s also interesting to see what sustainable brewing looks like. There are signs of waste reduction everywhere you look, from fuel cells to composting to hybrid trucks. You can read all about it here.
For a side trip, check out the Abbey of New Clairvaux, the monastery that Sierra’s Ovila beers are raising money to renovate. (Click here to learn more about the Sacred Stones project). At the winery, our host Aimee Sunseri was very kind about dispensing samples and explain to the wine-dumb among us (including me) what we were drinking. If you have a partner who’s not as into beer as you are, this oughta help justify a trip to the area.
Whether you ever make it to the brewery or not, it’s worth knowing that Sierra Nevada is independently owned and has a family succession plan in place to stay that way. Employees have benefits like no-copay health insurance, onsite daycare, and an onsite health clinic, and people actually seem to like being at work. So go ahead and Occupy that pale ale without guilt.
Many thanks to Rebecca at Beer Revolution for bringing me on this awesome adventure, and Sierra Nevada’s Steve Grossman, Ken Grossman, Terrence Sullivan, and Scott Jennings for making our time in Chico great.