I’ve always been a tinkerer. Before I could walk, my mother tells stories about me taking apart the toaster, or dismantling light covers and sticking bobby pins into wall sockets. I was a busy boy.
My tinkering transferred naturally to beer. I’ve been fascinated by beer since I was a kid. It started with my neighbor and best friend’s father. He was an avid home brewer and I loved to watch (and smell) his brewing. I started homebrewing myself when I was quite young, and the tinkering applied there as well: I malted all my own grains and roasted my dark malts in the oven. I even had plans of converting a front-loading washer-dryer into a little malt-house, which I never got around to building.
In 1976, I opened a homebrew shop above a storefront in downtown Chico, CA, but I dreamed of opening my own brewery. Two years later, inspired by people like Fritz Maytag and Jack McAuliffe, I sold the shop and came up with a business plan for Sierra Nevada.
In the early days, there wasn’t any equipment to make beer on a small scale. Everything I could think of had to be salvaged, reconfigured, or built from the ground up. I could have gone to Germany or England to buy ready-made brewing equipment, but even if I had been aware of that at the time, I couldn’t have afforded it. Our starting budget for opening the brewery was $50,000, but we ended up spending about twice that much.
I traveled up and down the West Coast buying everything I could get my hands on to bang together into a brewery. I bought pieces from a company that was scrapping the old Falstaff and Lucky Lager breweries in San Francisco. I didn’t really know what I needed, so I bought a variety of things, thinking I could use them someday.
At Butte Community College, I signed up for any class that would allow me to utilize the metal shop: agricultural welding, farm mechanics, anything where I could get in and access tools. Other students were working on tractor equipment, ploughs, and things like that; I was working on a brew kettle and a lauter tun. I spent days on a drill press making thousands of holes in the plates that would make up the false bottom in the lauter tun. I converted a steam-jacketed tank and a fruit hopper into a brew kettle. Thankfully, my teachers were sympathetic.
In 1980, with all secondhand equipment and a converted soft drink bottling line, we made our first batch of Pale Ale on my homebuilt system. I always wanted to make the kind of beer I liked to brew as a homebrewer: for me that meant hops. I wanted my beers to be something new and different, using West Coast American ingredients. Instead of always looking to Europe for beer, I thought why not turn the focus back home and make something truly American?
It’s been a strange ride. I remember in the early days, thinking that we would never be able to produce and sell 10,000 barrels of hoppy, bottle-conditioned beer. Now we sell fifty times that much. I still stay involved with all aspects of the brewery as possible. When we installed our new bottling line, I spent days working from early morning until late at night making sure everything went right. I could hire people to take care of it, but I have so much of myself invested in the brewery that I can’t imagine not being there. Working with equipment is something I know pretty well, and I guess I just like projects.
Ultimately my passion lies in all things beer: beer, brewing and brewing history. Throughout the process of building the facility we have today, I was able to collect parts and pieces from salvaged breweries and yards. Instead of throwing them away, we decided to make art out of them. Touring our brewery you notice little things, like doorknobs made from the brass fitting from the Falstaff Brewery, that help add to the whole.
For me, these pieces of brewing’s past connect this brewery to that history, and the tinkering keeps me connected in a physical way to beer’s future.
Ken Grossman founded Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in 1980.