American pastimes: baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and beer. I’m referring to American craft beer. Oh yes it’s enjoyable drinking it, and while on a recent trip to Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, CA, where I was among a small group of retail industry folks attending a Sierra Nevada Beer Camp®, I learned that it’s incredibly fun brewing up a beer recipe.
Beer camp? Sounds like fun, right? I can tell you it is! And with Sierra’s absolutely first class people and facilities as the platform, it’s as informative as it is fun, and it’s a ton (“tun”) of fun.
Our two full days of camp began with an extensive brewery tour including seeing some behind-the-scenes areas that aren’t part of the regular public tour. Sierra Nevada is very eager to show their spotless, beautiful facilities, and one quickly becomes aware of the quality that permeates not only the beer, but also the brew house and cellar, which are chock full of custom brewing equipment designed by founder, Ken Grossman, including their famous “Hop Torpedo” dry hopping vessels used for hopping up their namesake Torpedo® Extra IPA.
After the tour it was time for our group to determine the beer style we wanted to brew. Since the beer will come out during fall season, finalists included a “West Coast Spicy Red” with a touch of rye and other spices, and also a hearty yet approachable Brown ale. Some in the group wanted to go “session” strength (low ABV), while others had “imperial” strength in mind (strong). In the spirit of collaboration we landed on a Brown ale that should end up in the 6.5% ABV range, brewed with four malt varietals including a touch of rye malt, plus four hop varietals including Experimental Hop #366.
Of course, there was some beer sampling along the way, and just as I thought I needed some food to go with the beer, lunch in the Sierra Nevada Taproom fulfilled that wish, and to be sure, the food was fresh and fabulous. The large daily Taproom crowds for lunch and dinner speak to the popularity and respect that Sierra Nevada has in the greater Chico community.
Next we hit the road for a tour of the nearby Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA. This is a Trappist monastery in which Sierra Nevada has partnered with the monks to produce the brand of Belgian-style beers called Ovila Abbey Ales. Featuring ingredients grown by the monks on the grounds of the abbey, Ovila ales express homage to the time-honored monastic brewing tradition with a dose of American brewing innovation. Sierra Nevada contributes a portion of the sale proceeds of Ovila ale to the Abbey to help cover construction costs associated with the Sacred Stones project; an incredible undertaking involving construction of an 800 year old Chapter House that came from a Cistercian monastery in Ovila, Spain.
Day two was brew day, and we gathered first thing in the morning in the brewhouse of Sierra Nevada’s pilot brewery; another pristine state-of-the-art facility on the Sierra Nevada campus. Here we discussed the brewing process and reviewed the ingredients for our beer.
With ingredients list in hand, off we went to the mill house to fetch and measure the selected grains and pour them into the mill hopper, which then transferred the grist to the mash tun. A trip back up to the brew house allowed us to see our swirling porridge of grains and water, which looked like a very tasty and healthy breakfast.
Lautering of the mash would follow, and the resulting liquid wort would then move on to the brew kettle, so we needed leave the brewhouse again to go to the giant walk-in hops freezer and gather and measure our hops. It’s good to know going in which hops
you want, because while it smells like hop heaven, it’s VERY COLD in the big freezer! Parsed out into green buckets and weighed to the specs in the recipe, we denoted each hop varietal by a different color stripe on the buckets. Some hops are for bittering and some are for aroma and flavor. When back in the brew house, we needed to know which buckets to pour into the kettle at different times of the boil phase of the brewing process – bittering hops early in the boil, and aroma/flavor hops very late in the boil – and the stripes on the buckets helped to ensure we didn’t go astray from this regimen.
Brewers often say that the brewer makes the wort, while yeast makes the beer. This was as true for us as for any pros, and our brewing job for this camp was nearly
complete. Other than selecting a yeast strain to use for fermentation (a Sierra Nevada house ale yeast was used), the brewer’s art largely goes into the making of the wort, which is not yet beer, and the yeast is pitched in to feed on the sugars in the liquid converting them to alcohol and carbon dioxide – making beer. This process takes place in special fermentation vessels over the course of several days to one or more weeks depending on the brew and yeast strain(s) used. The temperature of the liquid is controlled to keep the yeasts happy and encourage them do their magic.
Post-fermentation there is still some art left for the brewer to practice in accordance with the beer style being brewed and the brewer’s desired flavor outcome. This includes barrel aging the beer in used wine, bourbon, whiskey or other spirits barrels, the addition of more hops for flavor and aroma, pitching more yeast in for a secondary fermentation, blending with other brews, and more.
Having been around the wine industry I’ve heard more than one winemaker say words to the effect, “It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine.” And having now spent some quality time in an active brewery I know that brewers share this winemaker motto for plying their craft of making beer. Drinking great beer begets brewing more great beer!
Sierra Nevada Beer Camp® was a fantastic hands-on experience in a world class production brewery like no other. Beyond the bottles of great beer and informative books available, including our Total Guide to Beer, Beer Camp® provided an educational immersion in the craft of brewing and a first-person experience of the passion that goes into it. It was like being “on-location” on the live set of a favorite story, and having a part in several key scenes.
This experience will be imparted to our Total Wine store staff through our ongoing internal beer education program, which we administer along with our company-sponsored Certified Beer Server (CBS) training initiative for the Cicerone® Certification Program, in which over 725 Total Wine & More personnel have become CBS certified since April 2013.
This Sierra Nevada Beer Camp® ale will be a very limited quantity draught-only brew, with a few kegs allocated to Total Wine and a few each going to the restaurants and pubs owned/managed by my camp cohorts. We plan to feature the beer on growler stations in select Total Wine markets which, as of this writing, are still to be determined.
Rob Hill, Certified Cicerone®
Author of Total Guide to Beer
New Programs Manager, Customer Experience
Total Wine & More
I have a local friend that told me her father was asked by the people that started the Sierra Nevada beer line back in the day if he would deliver their beer to bars and stores in his pick-up. He was apparently offered a small company share. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to deliver the goods due to other obligations. Today he would be a very wealthy man had he been able to comply with the companies request.
Rob Hill said:
Wow, that’s certainly one of those true “fish that got away” stories that makes one ponder what could have been. Back then, though, who’d have known Sierra Nevada was at the forefront of a beer revolution. Thanks for sharing.
I’m just curious, with all this cicerone education why isn’t more of the beer at the stores kept in refrigerators? It suffers enough at the distributors and on the trucks/trains, why let my beers degrade even further in your stores? Especially hoppy and more delicate styles, one week at room temperature for any beer with hop flavor and aroma and its a different beer, let alone beers that are on your shelves for longer.
I get that refrigerators in that quantity is very expensive and you have a lot of stores an new stores opening all the time but at what point does saving moneyed the detriment of your product negate your claim to be an elite alcohol supplier? I can no longer purchase my beer from you or Bevmo due to the fact that most of the beer I’ve gotten from your stores has more than enough ‘old-hop’ and oxidized ‘port’ flavored malt.
Or, maybe its cheaper to just add air conditioners and keep the whole store at <50°? Not a single item on your store would suffer. And if people knew why you did it then they would just remember to flgivto you instead if Bevmo and they'd grab a jacket on their way to the store.
Sure you have a return policy, but maybe instead of habit to give me my money back, you get fridges so I can buy fresher beer, you save money on returned product that you can't sell and put that return-money into buying fridges so that I and everyone else can buy more beer from you without concern for damaged beer!?
Fine, bud miller and coors drinkers, stone IPA faithfuls move the product rapidly, but I want swarzbiers and porters and that no-name IPA that doesn't move quickly cuz it doesn't say 'stone' on it. Those could be on the shelf for a while before I get it.
I donno, just trying to make sure that other people out there know what beer is 'supposed' to taste like. No, a tripel doesn't typically have fig flavors, an Ordinary Bitter DOES have some hop character, no hops are usually fresher than this, malt cleaner than this but unfortunately we have a 3 tier system and a broken beer-education in America that the cicerone program is trying to change but its going to have a hard time raising the standard of beer flavor and freshness levels to where they should be if stores that sell mass quantities and claim to be 'certified cicerones' are peddling old beer. Dates don't matter, freshness does. If rather have a 1 year old IPA than the same IPA at room temp for 3 weeks or more.
Can you please step up and help raise the standard of beer and beer education? There is a reason why American went from probably 80+% liking beer from 1770's – prohibition and now maybe 10% of America knows there is more to beer than golden rice/corn lager, let alone actually like beer. Most people only think there is black, gold or bitter beer and refuse to try more because they feel they've tried them all. I live near San Diego and even around here with so many amazing beers, people look down on beer and think it doesn't pair with food. Even BJ's 'brewery' restaraunts, on Mother's Day, advertise a wine special and not a beer and wine special. WHAT? You're a brewery! Why wouldn't mom like a beer with lunch or dinner? Before prohibition, most of the home brewers were the wives/mothers of the house.
I'm writing this, not because I'm angry at you, but because you have potential to do better for yourselves, me, the beer community, the brewers who are trying to get more people to give beer a shot again, let alone actually realize that beer may actually be better than wine with more variety and better pair with food. Wine is great! I like wine, some are amazing! What about mead, why isn't anyone drinking more meads?
You're an alcohol store. Alcohol is good in moderation! Lets work on variety! Maybe all those hipsters drinking Chardonnay should give Duvel or Pranqster a try? Cabernet savignon, maybe a Belgian dark strong or American barleywine? Like coffee, not a lot of wines taste like coffee or chocolate, how about a stout that isn't Guinness? Guinness is what Guinness is, if you don't like that and you like coffee and dark chocolate then lets try something else? Like coffee with cream and sugar, maybe a nice porter or darker brown ale?
Lets actually let people know that wine is in the same place as beer, and vice versa!! Lets recommend a beer to go with a wine, and a wine to go with a beer? This is your job, not to sell what people come in for, necessarily, but to grow the business of selling craft beverages but also to broaden people's knowledge of them.
Does anyone, except Homebrewers, even know what mead is? Something to think about!
Rob Hill said:
Hi Clayton, your passion for beer is fantastic. We’re always working on ways to improve our product merchandising. You are correct in observing that keeping all beer in America refrigerated at all times would be an expensive (and not necessarily “green”) proposition. No doubt it would be an ideal environment for this beloved drink, but not practical in every scenario. You rightfully note that the distribution system does not guarantee refrigeration at every point. The fact is there is more beer than there is refrigeration space. Beer in a refrigerator in a store does not mean that same beer has been refrigerated all its life before it got to the store. But know that it is a subject that is on our radar screen and we appreciate and listen to beer enthusiast feedback such as yours; it does inform our decisions as we grow and expand and make changes.
As for beer education, we definitely believe in that and it is manifested in such educational tools as our free book called Total Guide To Beer and our monthly consumer beer classes in our stores with a classroom. And you mentioned our efforts to get much of our store staff Cicerone CBS certified, which is raising the bar to help pass this store Team Member beer knowledge on to our customers.
Again, thanks for your passion and taking the time to write.
Wayne Toliver said:
Great article! I’ve been brewing my own beer for about 5 years. It’s great fun and, yes, there is quite an education that goes along with it. I’m a fan of Sierra Nevada beers and and very much envy your time at this Beer Camp. Koodos!
Rob Hill said:
Thanks Wayne. As a home brewer of five years, have you developed a knack for brewing any certain beer styles?
BD Douglas said:
The beer guide is great but it would be even better with a beer/brewery index. Thanks.
Hello BD, Can you provide any additional info on the information you would like to see in a beer/brewery index? I think one of our challenges is that the book covers all of the 15+ states in which we have Total Wine & More stores, and beyond, and yet for most of the craft beers, they’re not available in all states. It could lead to some confusion for some consumers.
I love Sierra Nevada Porter. I was going to buy a case when I was last in your Summerlin store in Las Vegas, but there was only one 6-pack left in the whole place. They need to do a better job in that store of stocking popular beers. This is not he first time something like that has happened to me there.
Rob Hill said:
Hi Rick. Some beers, no matter how fantastic as is Sierra Nevada Porter, do not sell as fast as other beers do, and therefore the store may only order one case at a time of this beer. To ensure you can get a full case, you can order it at the Customer Service desk at the front of the store, and they will will order a case for you and hold it for you in your name. You can do this as often as desired.
Dave Morgan said:
Now this is the kind of summer camp I wish my parents had sent me to!
Jimmy Kubertu said:
I am very interesting to joint the beer camp. Can I have the schedule???
Hi Jimmy, go to http://www.sierrabeercamp.com/ for information on Sierra Nevada Beer Camp.