Brewer Touts Innovation to Winemakers

Sierra Nevada founder is keynote speaker at third annual IQ conference

by Andrew Adams
wine business monthly innovation quality conference sierra nevada ken grossman
Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada brewery, speaks about how his dedication to quality helped launch his craft beer company decades ahead of the craft beer boom.

St. Helena, Calif.—Ken Grossman, who founded Sierra Nevada brewery in 1980, was a pioneer in revitalizing U.S. beer and has used research and innovation to remain a leader in the industry as it has rapidly grown around him.

Grossman was one of the keynote speakers at the third-annual Innovation+Quality (IQ) conference hosted by Wine Business Monthly magazine at Charles Krug Winery. Wines & Vines and Wine Business Monthly are both part of Wine Communications Group. Speaking at the start of the show, the magazine’s publisher Eric Jorgensen said a goal of IQ has always been to feature innovation in industries other than wine. In the first and second years of the show, special recognition went to Tesla and Nike, respectively, and this year the spotlight shone on Sierra Nevada.

Vintner and winemaking pioneer Jerry Lohr received the show’s Innovator of the Year honor, and winemaking consultant and Wines & Vines contributor Clark Smith, who was the 2016 Innovator of the Year, also gave a keynote address about his work developing a method to determine the “oxygen trajectory” of wines to help winemakers predict a wine’s shelf life, decide on an appropriate closure and other winemaking decisions.

Other sessions at the conference explored new technology to ensure the quality of natural corks, methods to track phenolic development in grapes and a blind tasting based on a trial between screwcaps and natural corks.

Grossman gave an overview of Sierra Nevada’s history and its current operations to a crowd of about 250 people in the barrel room of Charles Krug. He said he started home brewing after being inspired by a neighbor who was a home winemaker and brewer.

Grossman moved to Chico, Calif., in 1972; shortly after, he opened a small homebrew shop, a rarity in itself at the time. It was even more odd to consider opening a brewery, and after Grossman sold the shop six years later, he couldn’t find any bank willing to lend him the $50,000 seed capital he needed for the brewery business plan he had written. “Back then it was pretty novel to open a brewery,” he said.

Eventually, Grossman was able to convince enough friends and family to lend him some money, but he had to either manufacture or repurpose all his beer equipment himself because of his tight budget and a dearth of domestic brewery equipment suppliers. He said he took courses at the local community college to learn fabrication and welding and built his first set of fermentation tanks himself, spending days hand polishing the interior welds. When the brewery opened, it was in a humble metal building, and Grossman did the brewing and bottling himself.

Early on he realized his nascent operation would only survive if it produced a quality product, so he did have a small in-house lab for yeast propagation and quality control, and he made regular trips to the University of California, Davis to photocopy journal articles and research papers about brewing. The commitment to quality paid off as it helped create a local reputation that led to a multi-page article in a San Francisco newspaper that put Sierra Nevada on the map.

The Chico brewery has since grown from a 3,000-square-foot building to a sprawling facility on 40 acres of land. In 2014, Sierra Nevada also built a second brewery in North Carolina to cut down on shipping costs and keep up with demand for the brewery’s classic pale ale and the extra hoppy Torpedo. The company now employs more than 1,000 staffers and produces more than 1 million barrels of beer per year.

Grossman said the company’s commitment to research and development has remained strong throughout its history, and he still spends “quite a bit” on it. The brewery has both an analytical lab with five gas chromatography machines and other analyzers and a sensory lab. Sierra Nevada has done extensive research into how oxygen can ingress into the headspace of bottles as well as scalp hop aromas.

Despite the assurances of keg suppliers that they have “passivated” or neutralized the interior surfaces, Grossman said his lab was still finding iron leeching in the beer. Sierra Nevada then developed its own process using a solution of hop-derived alpha acids to ensure those kegs were neutral.

He said they’ve also invested quite a bit in glass inspection, but that still hasn’t completely protected them as the company recently had to conduct a 36-state recall of beers bottled at the North Carolina brewery because of a risk of bottles chipping.

Thirty years ago, when consumers began trying Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for the first time, the beer’s hoppiness was revolutionary. Today, Grossman said it’s now on the mild end of the hoppy beer spectrum, but the brewery has worked to maintain market share. Key to this was the development of the Torpedo ale, which is made with hop infusion tanks known in the brewery as torpedoes.

The company continues to launch new products designed to appeal to craft beer consumers who have no shortage of new beers to try. Grossman said it’s less about competing against all the new breweries in the United States but rather competing for those beer drinkers by staying innovative. 

Sierra Nevada has invested in used spirits barrels to launch a barrel-aged program and, despite his own deep misgivings about it, Grossman said he let Brettanomyces into the brewery. He said at the urging of his son Brian Grossman (who is poised to manage the privately held company with his sister Sierra after Ken Grossman retires) he developed an entirely separate system to carefully inseminate bottles of beer with a small dose of Brett for small run sour beers. “We need to go after the next generation of beer drinkers,” he said.

Prior to Grossman’s presentation, Jerry Lohr, founder of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines in San Jose, Calif., received an award for his commitment to supporting the U.S. wine industry. Lohr was instrumental in establishing the American Vineyard Foundation and he said his goals have been to integrate wine into American culture, make it sustainable and always improve year after year.

Lohr, who is now 80, called on those in the audience to do more than just make wine, but to volunteer wherever they can to support the industry in general. “The challenge is who among you will be the leaders of the future,” he said. “Everyone here can do something above and beyond your winemaking to advance the industry.”


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