Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Those four words tell a story. But not the whole story. For that, we crack open Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman’s biz-ography. Before he became a legendary pioneer, young master Grossman learned how to tinker with gadgets and machines, figuring out how to MacGyver his own brewing system before he realized there must be a better way to brew beer than using cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon malt and paper-wrapped bricks of dried hops.
Grossman pays proper respect to Fritz Maytag and the first new craft brewery, New Albion, for showing him that while continuing down his early path working at bike shops and nearly owning one would’ve been safer, “the thought of brewing beer for my livelihood was much more appealing that fixing flats.” Demonstrating how novel this concept was when Sierra Nevada made its first sale in 1981, readers learn that there were only five other craft breweries at the time. Ten by the following year. Instead of the 84-categories-strong competition that the Great American Beer Festival is today, in ’82, when the second annual GABF introduced a popular vote, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale came in first (and its porter took silver). Likewise, we see how patient and supportive his wife, Katie, was, while she managed the homebrew shop they actually owned while raising their first baby, Sierra, as Ken and founding partner Paul Camusi nurtured their other baby.
The stories of Grossman’s personal and professional brewingare told as if he’s speaking to an interviewer on the other side of his desk. It’s not as convivial as spinning yarns to someone next to him on a stool at the Chico brewery’s pub, though he does save some good asides for each chapter’s endnotes. In discussing making arrangements to sell the brewery (relax/spoiler alert: He doesn’t sell), he dubbed the plan Project Ocean because the sale would enable him to retire to the coast and go diving. Come the endnote, Ken remarks on his love of free diving, “One nice benefit of diving is that it’s hard for your mind to wander back to thoughts of work. … It also helps that no one has yet figured out how to make a cell phone that works under water.” Having said that, the book is meatier than Twitter tweets (another thing the Internet would’ve been useful for in the early days when they were trying to introduce their full-flavored beer).
Over all, Beyond the Pale slants more toward business parable than beer geek banter about Cascade hops. Yes, it’s about that storied Pale Ale, but there’s nary a mention of Torpedo or Hoptimum.
This book outlines Sierra Nevada’s against-all-odds ascent from its initial 10-barrel brewhouse in the early 1980s to surpassing 100,000 barrels in annual sales by the end of the 1990s (and the bitter battle along the way to buy out Camusi and his family members who were initial investors), to the company’s inexorable march to the million-barrel mark that it will soon reach. If you’re interested in picking up tips about the business side of the beer business, this is chock-full of them. If you’re looking to emulate Grossman’s success, note that he candidly comments, “In truth, I haven’t slept that well for the past 30 years.”
From our archives: Read a 2008 column by Ken Grossman