The brewery that changed America

Will Hawkes

Ken Grossman 300x208 The brewery that changed AmericaKen Grossman is not a boastful man, despite having plenty to feel smug about. His Sierra Nevada brewery, founded in 1980, played a pivotal role – perhaps the pivotal role – in launching America’s craft beer revolution, and the flagship product, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, has become an icon, inspiring countless brewers across the globe. Indeed, such has been Sierra Nevada’s success that plans have recently been announced for a new brewery – the original is in Chico, northern California – on the United States’ East Coast, in order to better keep up with demand. Reminded of his creation’s worldwide influence, though, Grossman (right) refuses to get carried away. “That’s fun to see,” he says.

Fun and, given what he has witnessed over the past 40 years, pretty amazing too. The United States used to be the world’s biggest good beer desert but the revolution which Sierra Nevada helped create has swept across the country. America now has undoubtedly the most innovative and exciting beer scene in the world and Americans can drink at least as well as their British, German or Belgian counterparts. It’s quite a turnaround, admits Grossman.

“Attitudes to beer have really changed,” he says. “It has been a dramatic shift, and we’ve been a part of that. When we started it was difficult to get a distributor to take you seriously, and the retailers weren’t too interested and the public wasn’t that aware of what we were doing. That’s very different to today, when every distributor wants your beer and retailers are focusing on promoting craft brands and customers are very knowledgeable.”

When Sierra Nevada was brought into existence by Grossman and co-founder Paul Camusi, there were a handful of decent American breweries. They included Anchor in San Francisco – still going strong today, having been transformed by brewer Fritz Maytag after he took over in 1965 – and New Albion, whose influence has outlived the brewery’s short existence. Grossman, a homebrewer before turning professional, says he has reason to be grateful to both. “Fritz invested time in how to make beer and figured out how to market a small production brewery to be relatively profitable,” says Grossman. “Before then all the small American brewers were emulating what the big brewers were doing, it was impossible for them to make a profit and stay in business. Fritz realised that wasn’t going to work.

“He was the first one who figured that out – but then Jack McAuliffe [of New Albion] and a few other small operations went from homebrewing to commercial brewing, and that was probably more instrumental in showing me a way forward. Visiting New Albion, I found out that he was brewing maybe two or three times what I was doing as a homebrewer and I thought ‘well, I can do that.’”

sierranevadaPale Ale 230x300 The brewery that changed AmericaGrossman – whose own brewing awakening came early, thanks to the homebrewing father of a boyhood friend – believes the fact that all three were founded in Northern California has had a big impact on America’s beer revolution. This part of the world is renowned for free-thinking – from hippies to Apple – and beer has proved no exception. “It was an advantage for us to be here,” he says. “I’ve often wondered, you know, if Anchor hadn’t been in San Francisco, and New Albion hadn’t started in Sonoma, and if we hadn’t started here, would the craft world have got as much traction as it did? In Northern California, with the culture of good wine and food and things that are not mainstream – I think that helped kick-start things. I don’t think if we’d have been in Kansas, for example, it would have been the same. That’s not to say craft beer wouldn’t be here today, but it probably wouldn’t have happened as fast.”

Sierra Nevada’s big breakthrough came in 1982, when a San Francisco newspaper ran a lengthy feature on the company. “That was a shot in the arm,” says Grossman. “From then on we were pretty successful.” Central to that success was the quality of the Pale Ale, which was one of the first beers to be made with floral, citrusy Cascade hops. The recipe has stayed virtually the same ever since – and while it now tastes a little tame compared to some of the big-flavoured West Coast pale ales on the market, it remains the beer that introduced much of the world to the flavours of the American craft revolution.

Not that it has been an easy ride for craft brewers since. As Grossman says, good beer in America has suffered a couple of false dawns since the 1980s. “There have been a few waves since then – I wouldn’t say that it has been a straight-line ride: there have been some dips,” says Grossman. “Back in the early ’80s when we started brewing, the brewers that were around in those days were really struggling. Most of them are now out of business.

“It wasn’t until the late ’80s, early ’90s that things really started to grow. Then there was a dip in growth for the industry caused by a variety of reasons – some brewers weren’t very sophisticated, and the beers weren’t consistent, and there was some pushback. Imports started to re-assert themselves and regain some of what they had lost. The most recent strong wave has been going on for five or six years – and it seems that this is probably a more significant moment.”

sierranevadaBrewery Exterior 300x213 The brewery that changed AmericaNo wonder, then, that Sierra Nevada has chosen now to cross the US. The new brewery in Mills River, North Carolina (which is expected to be up and running by early 2014) will focus on supplying the East Coast market, but it seems inevitable that its existence will make it easier for drinkers overseas to get their hands on Sierra Nevada beer (which, in Britain at least, is already not that difficult: more than one major supermarket chain carries their products).

And while Grossman predicts tough times for some craft brewers (“Some market places are already pretty saturated: up in the north-west [of the USA], price is beginning to become a driver. That’s probably not the healthiest way for the craft market to grow. Some breweries are struggling to make ends meet – I think there will be a shakeout in the future”), he has lost none of his thirst for Sierra Nevada. Retirement seems a long way off for this 57-year-old. “I’m still having fun, I love coming to work every day,” he says. “There’s a challenging few years ahead of me.” Understated to the last.

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  • Hester Wells

    And I suspect you don’t know what we got, for much the same reason: distribution is an issue over such a distance. I’m probably never going to have a chance to try many of the beers mentioned here unless I travel to them, just as you are unlikely to ever have any beer from the 5 microbreweries around my UK town. With a few exceptions, the beer that gets a high enough profile to be produced in large quantity and shipped isn’t going to be the best of the best.

  • Benedict Edwards

    It has been amazing to see the turnaround in US beer production.  When I went to the US for the first time, in 1999, it was an absolute wasteland – Bud and Coors as far as the eye could see.  Going back to California, esp San Francisco, in the last five years has been brilliant – decent lagers, ales and pale ales as far as the eye can see, interesting little breweries all over the place.  I say good work the Americans.  

  • Benedict Edwards

    Anchor Steam is delicious too. 

  • Benedict Edwards

    Dear god man if you’re in California you have no excuse.  Get thee to a bodega.

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