Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman — The Tale of Pale Ale

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is more than 30 years old and it's still growing. From the iconic green label, to the aromatic hops that inspired a generation, the impact of Pale Ale on today's craft brewing generation cannot be overstated. In an industry when flagships are rapidly giving way to the always-new portfolio strategy, and consumers sometimes don't taste the same beer twice, we may never see the rise of a national craft label like Pale Ale again. 

On an exhausting eight-day stretch of the Beer Camp Tour from Flagstaff to Chicago, on board a bus full of brewers crossing the nation from Sierra Nevada's home in Chico, California to its second brewery in Mills River, North Carolina, this was a perfect time to reflect with founder Ken Grossman on the history, success, and legacy of Pale Ale. 

Through the lens of this single beer, so much of the craft brewing world comes into focus.

So, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is over 30 years old. That’s ancient in craft beer years. How do you think about a beer that you’ve been brewing for 30 years and still get excited about it?

Interestingly enough, I went and found all the old records of our test brewing of that beer, just fairly recently, when I was researching my book.

Breweries aren't exactly libraries. Where did you find those?

I dug back through boxes we had saved all the archives from when we first started the business. I had maybe 10 bankers boxes I dug out of a warehouse. I took them all home and went through them folder by folder and stacks and stacks of paper work. I found all the old handwritten homebrew logs pre-’78 when we were first starting to think about going in to the brewing business. I didn’t remember some of what we had experimented with. I found a whole bunch of different yeast types we were brewing with. We added Cascade from the beginning, that was the hop we wanted to go to market with but how much we added, when we added, all the different additions. So there was more than ten homebrew recipes I found. 

Are any of those really, really close to the one you have now?

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Oh yeah. The final one we went to market with is really very close to where we are today. We were playing around with the type of yeast, the fermentation temperature, and there was a bit of water salting experiments we were doing with different calcium levels. So, when we came up with what we thought was the right batch we went in to our production brewing, which started in November of 1980 and went on in to February before we really tweaked the recipe and got it to where we wanted it for the pale ale. I remember pale ale number three we were pretty excited about. 

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Batch three success isn’t bad! I know a lot of breweries that would sign up for that. 

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Batch three. We didn’t sell it. But, we gave it to friends. We were getting pretty close at that point. We had some sluggish fermentations like batch four to ten or eleven. We didn’t sell any of those. We pretty much dumped all of them after struggling to get the fermentations consistent. Finally, by batch eleven or twelve we were pretty consistently making the beer we wanted.

How big of a batch are we talking back then?

Ten barrels. Three hundred and ten gallons.

Most breweries that are starting up today couldn't afford to dump 12 batches in a row. Even if they could, they’d probably just call it something else and release it anyway. 

And we were struggling to keep afloat at that point. We didn’t have much money left. We pretty much burned through everything. We were pretty adamant that we needed to be able to reproduce the same batch, batch after batch. I said batch number three was pretty close to where we wanted to be, but batch four wasn’t, and batch five wasn’t, and six wasn’t…

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Were there any particular things you were trying to perfect at the end that were challenging?

We needed to have the same heating curve, the natural heating curve, in the fermentation. We wanted to make sure that the next batch we could exactly duplicate the flavor and aroma that we had hit. That’s where we were struggling for a while. It turned out to be something as simple as we didn’t have enough wort aeration. We had this big open stainless steel cooler and we had assumed that as the wort trickled down the outside it was getting enough oxygen in it and we should feed the yeast what it needed. In reality, I went back to the chemistry lab where I had TA’d at junior college, talked to the professors to allow me to do a bunch of higher level analysis. I was looking at calcium levels, I was looking at nitrogen. We were sending samples out to Siebel. Just trying to figure out what the hell was going on with our inability to have the exact same fermentation. As it turned out a little bit more oxygen was all we needed to add. So the solution was to put a little fish tail end on our pump. So, as were pumping in to the fermenter we would spray it in rather than going to the bottom which is what we had been doing.

 

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Do you remember the first bars and restaurants that actually bought the first Pale Ale?

I do. Paul and myself and Steve Harrison, our first employee, we walked the streets of Chico. We couldn’t afford to buy six pack carriers so we were taking individual bottles around with us in an ice chest. Our first day we maybe had five or six sales. La Salle's, the only fern bar in downtown Chico at the time.

What’s a fern bar?

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You know, a little upscale, higher-end rather than a dive bar. Now it’s more of a dive bar but back then it was little bit more upscale. They had imported beers and maybe even Guinness or something, I don’t know.

What’d you sell a bottle for back then?

Eighty five cents.

Half a million barrels of Pale Ale being produced today. What does a bottle of Pale Ale cost these days? 

Well, depending on what market you’re in, anywhere from about a dollar to probably a dollar fifty. 

Sixty percent of your sales is Pale Ale these days. Is it good for Pale Ale to be that large a percentage of your sales when the current market rewards anything new?

No, it’s good. I think if you look at pretty much all of the flagships from all of the larger breweries, even smaller breweries that are in established markets, the flagships have been not as exciting for the drinker that wants to taste something new and different from the breweries. Most all of flagships are stagnating a little bit as far as growth rate. 

Is Pale Ale stable at 60%, or is it shifting?

It’s been growing. We’ve continued to grow. We haven’t had a down year for Pale Ale but the growth rate has not been as strong as some of the other brands we put out.

So it’s grown in terms of total overall sales. Is it growing in terms of a percentage of your sales?

It’s probably declining overall as a percentage of our sales. Torpedo, now, is a huge brand for us. Before Torpedo, Pale Ale was probably close to eighty percent or our sales. 

So, opening up a North Carolina branch, obviously you needed to find a way to reproduce Pale Ale. Did that kind of take you back to the days of when you were trying to perfect it the first time around?

Yeah, we actually tried to eliminate as many variables as possible. We shipped the same malt. We went to the trouble of sourcing the exact same batches from our suppliers. It’s not only from the same malt house it was actually the same batch of malt that we would split to both breweries so we knew we were at least using the same raw materials. Exact same raw materials to start. The same lots of hops too. We took the same bails and split them out of the same lot.Then we did a lot of sensory analysis as well as blind tasted everything. We had beers go in both directions so we would take the same batches that were brewed with the same ingredients from Chico and from Mills River and overnight them both ways. Three days a week we were doing that. Then blind tasting Mills River Pale Ale against Chico Pale Ale. We dumped quite a few brews in Mills River as well. Not that the beers weren’t good. We were just missing some little nuance in the aroma or the flavor.

Is that something that you plan on sustaining, splitting batches indefinitely, or is that a temporary strategy?  

We’re still sourcing the exact same malt supplies. We aren’t going to the same level of detail and actually getting the same lot and splitting it, but we’re sourcing from the same malt houses.

You just showed me a picture, yesterday, of some of the fermentation vessels. Was that the first time those were running?

It was, with beer in it. We did some pickling, a couple weeks ago. We tend to air on the side of not wanting to put beer in to any fresh stainless steel — we call it beer pickling. We actually take either a batch of beer and run it through the process and dump it, or we’ll take the yeast out of a bunch of different fermentations, accumulate it, and put that in to the vessel. 

What is it about running it through stainless steel that you’re trying to change?

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Even though stainless is, theoretically, pretty inert, the ability of hop alpha acids to chelate iron off the surface of the stainless is pretty strong. So, all new stainless, no matter how you treat it, we’ve found you can still pick up some iron from it. We do this pickling process with beer or with a solution we came up with. We call it pickle juice. It’s essentially a lot of hop alpha acids that we soak the stainless in for up to a couple weeks. Hops can bind that free iron. Whether you passivate it with acids or whatever, the hops are still better at making the surface inert. All the keg manufacturers passivate the kegs with either the combination of nitric or citric acid and that theoretically makes it inert. We’ve found that even after those chemical treatments, beer will still pick up some free iron from the surface. 

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Do you think that new breweries that are starting up now, maybe even the last few years, will ever see a flagship beer like a Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or a Sam Adam’s Boston Lager?

I think so. There are some breweries whose philosophy is not to have a flagship. You talk to Sam at Dogfish, he’s said for years he wants to be known for brewing a whole bunch of beers not just for 60-Minute. Although, in reality, 60 Minute is his flagship, and he does sell that most. He didn’t want to hitch his business to just one brand. I think we’re finding that that’s been more and more important for the consumer who wants to drink across a wide range of beers. You’ve got to provide them with a variety from your portfolio, not just have one brand that you’re focused on.

Are you surprised that Pale Ale has had such staying power in a market that’s so diverse right now?

I’m pretty surprised. We’ve been the number one, at least in grocery sales, the number one craft brand for years. Bigger than Sam Adams Boston Lager. The last few years we’ve been trading places. Some of their seasonals out-perform Pale Ale. I think I was quoted or remember saying, years ago, that the limit for a bottle conditioned hoppy pale ale is somewhere around 10,000 barrels a year. I was thinking “if we could ever grow Pale Ale to 10,000 barrels a year, that would be an amazing thing." It’s over half a million barrels now. I was wrong about the consumer acceptance of bottle-conditioned, fairly hoppy beers.

Do you think people even realize that it’s bottle conditioned?

The majority of folks, probably not. We still get a lot of enquiries like “why is there sediment in my bottle?” I don’t think that big of a percentage of consumers realize that. 

Is it important to you that it’s bottle conditioned?

Oh yeah. It’s something that adds a lot to the character of the beer. That additional two weeks of aging in our cellars, in the bottle, in temperature controlled warehousing, creates a lot of nuances and a lot of aromas and flavors in the beer. 

Let’s talk about the scale benefits of producing something like Pale Ale. You were thinking “it’d be great to get to 10,000 barrels” and now you’re at half a million barrels. What does the scale of something like that do for you as a brewer? What are the benefits of that?

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Well, you know, having the ability to blend for consistency, having the infrastructure that allows us to efficiently and consistently brew the same Pale Ale batch after batch. We’ve been working on it for more than thirty years but we’ve really refined that bottle conditioning process as part of that. I think we’re the largest bottle conditioned brewer in the world now. There may be a few others that are up there but it’s something that we’ve worked real hard at to get consistent cell counts, to get consistent carbonation, consistent bottle conditioning rates. All of that is something we take real seriously. We put a lot of resources in to it. We monitor it. I think we do a pretty good job.

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We were just talking about the Wall Street Journal article about Sierra Nevada, and the impact that size has over perceptions of quality or creativity when you’re small and how that changes, in the consumers perception, as you get bigger. Depending on the source data, or which market we’re talking about, you have the number one craft beer in the United States right now with Pale Ale. What is the difference between the way you look at that success and the creativity behind it, and the way a consumer might perceive it when they see how big something like Pale Ale has gotten?

I think the fact that we are available pretty widely, some consumers think that we maybe don’t have the same craftiness that we had when we were small. But in reality we do a lot of very hard and challenging things when we brew beer. We don’t take short cuts. We still use whole cone hops. We go through this pretty elaborate bottle conditioning process. We do hundreds of quality control checks in every batch of Pale Ale. We still use one hundred percent malt. We do a lot of expensive and hard to do things that a lot of craft brewers would be challenged to do at a small size, let alone our size. I think we still have our roots intact and we’re still doing what we love to do, and consistently doing it.

A lot of craft breweries couldn’t conceive of being as successful as they are today. Now as some of those founders are moving out of the company, retiring or selling off, the succession plan starts to become an extremely important thing for them. How do you prepare Sierra Nevada for an eventual transition?

We’ve been pretty focused the last couple years on building our bench strength so that my kids have a support structure. It’s a fairly complicated operation. Now we’ve got restaurants and a tasting room at Berkeley, a second brewery in North Carolina. It’s not an easy company to wrap your arms around and stay in touch with all the aspects of it. We’ve added quite a few people to the team and we’re still adding a few. We promoted people from within. We’re grooming a new plant manager in Chico, a fella’ I knew when he was still in High School, Mike Bennett. He’s been with us now for nearly fifteen years. He grew up with my daughter, both my daughters, actually. We’ve also brought in a few folks from other breweries. We’ve been trying to build a team so that we’ve a got a broad range of experiences as well as talents. 

What do you think the legacy of Pale Ale is for the craft industry?

I think the fact that we’ve really stayed pretty much with the same recipe for more than essentially thirty five years when we first home brewed it using primarily the same hops, at least the same aroma hops. The bittering hops have changed a little bit because some of the varieties are no longer being grown for economic reasons. We really featured the Cascade hop, day one. It’s now become the number one craft hop, I think in the United States anyway, if not being exported globally. I would say we had a bit to do with the success of that variety, and making it the leading craft hop. It’s something our Pale Ale showcased and I think a lot of other brewers have embraced that hop aroma as well.

Michael Kiser