Even if you’re just stopping in for the normal tour, Sierra Navada is still well worth the trip. The front of the house is like a museum of cool beery things and the taproom has 15-ish beers on at all times. Many of them aren’t distributed (at least not widely). And the food is excellent. Chico State raises cattle for the restaurant, they get fresh fish from nearby and they have a wood-fired oven which makes a mean pizza.
But you’re reading this for the secret behind the scenes stuff, right? Steve Grossman (Ken’s brother) heads up the Beer Camp program and he’s recently brought in Terence Sullivan (one of the brewers) to help out. Both of them are really great guys and did an exceptional job of giving us the inside scoop on all of the brewery operations. After spending a couple of days together, they’re more like friends than just guys who work for Sierra Nevada.
The first day of camp was mainly touring the grounds. It’s like a campus compared to the “3 guys in a warehouse” breweries we have here. So that lasted most of the day.
We started out with a brief history lesson – you can check out Ken Grossman’s keynote from NHC which covers most of it. After that we headed over to the railroad spur. Yes, they have their own railroad station for bringing in malt. It’s apparently much more efficient than the 3-4 trucks per day they were getting down from Canada. One railroad car is one day worth of malt in the production brewhouses.
The main 100 and 200 barrel brewhouses are pretty much what you’d expect – check out the pictures. The 200 barrel brewery has a pretty cool hand-painted mural all the way around that describes the brewing process. Each of the characters in the mural is an employee!
I didn’t get any pictures of the big hop warehouse but it was pretty impressive – very little light inside, it’s about 30ºF and hop bales are stacked 5 or 6 high. There are more hops lying around on the floor (that eventually get swept away) than any of us homebrewers could use in a year.
The labs were also pretty cool – mass spectrometers, gas chromatography and other assorted chemistry nerd stuff. It was interesting to see that they do a forced ferment test on all of the batches. If you have a stir-plate it’s a pretty easy thing to add to your repertoire.
In the afternoon we sat down as a group with pilot brewers Scott and Mark to iron out the details on our recipe. We decided on something along the lines of an American-style Old/Stock/Strong ale. It should be a pretty good malty fall seasonal beer.
A quick trip through the gift shop and then over to the taproom for the 4:30pm Thursday cask. This week it was wet-hopped Pale ale. Excellent! They’re working on getting more casks and barrels to expand those programs over the next couple of years.
The second day we brewed.
The pilot brewhouse is super cool. The fermenters are 20 barrels but the brewhouse is only 10 barrels – so they have 2 boil kettles and separate mash and sparge tanks. This way they can do 2 batches at once.
They also have a really sweet hydrating malt mill. Basically the grain gets misted with water which helps the husk to peel away rather than shred. Seems like something that’s easily adaptable for homebrewers.
All of the beer is brewed with de-aerated water and the mill is purged with nitrogen to prevent oxidation and improve stability in the finished beer. Water combines with the grain as it exits the mill so at this point it’s mashing already. From there the mash gets pumped up to the mash tun.
The second batch gets mashed in while the first batch is sparging.
While the brew was going on we got a chance to go into the Sensory lab and experience a quick version of their tasting program. You sit in the booth, the window opens and someone passes you beer. It’s a triangle test and you have to determine which of the 3 beers has a problem and what the problem is. In the first round, one of the beers was spiked with an off flavor and in the second round one of the beers was 4 months older than the others. The spiked beer was easy to identify, but I also managed to pick out the old beer – so that was cool.
The lab was also nice enough to analyzed some hoebrew for us. They did the basic tests for SRM, ABV, BU, pH, and OG. It was interesting to see how far off everyone’s IBU calculations were from actual. Most were about 30% lower than what we calculated with Beersmith or Promash.
We wrapped up with a big group tasting with a bunch of the staff. First on the menu was a vertical tasting of Bigfoot (’09, ’06, ’03, ’00). And then a bunch of secret stuff I probably shouldn’t mention. If you’re only familiar with the basic Pale Ale, Torpedo IPA, Kellerweis and Porter which you can find everywhere – then you’d be really surprised at some of the stuff the pilot brewery turns out.
After that we gave up on “tell us about this beer” and just lined everything up in the sensory room festival style. We ended up with 6 previous beer camp brews on tap along with a 18 or so homebrew beer, mead and cider and a few commercials. This social session ended up as one of the highlights for campers and staff alike.
It was definitely an action packed couple of days. They haven’t decided if the winners of the NHC will be invited back again next year, but you can bet I’ll be doing my best to win again next year – just in case…