Sierra Nevada’s newest year-round release—Torpedo Extra IPA, an India pale ale embellished by the brewery’s homemade hop-extractor, dubbed “the hop torpedo”—may be viewed as a thank-you to the craft beer drinking community. After all, the brewery helped launch our collective love of hops when it introduced its flagship pale ale in 1980.
You can’t apply the mission or mechanics of homegrown breweries from the 1980s onward to the industrial ones that have survived since the nineteenth century.
Or it may be an homage to founder Ken Grossman’s wife.
“‘Damn the torpedoes,’ as my wife said. She wanted to have a baby and so Sierra came along.”
That’s Sierra Grossman, not the brewing company, born in 1977. Her father divided his time between working at bike shops around Chico, CA, and his homebrew supply store. In the late 1970s, earning around a buck and a half an hour, Grossman mulled over an opportunity to buy a bike shop while his wife virtually raised Sierra in their homebrew shop.
Grossman recalls, “having a serious internal debate about doing the safer thing and buying the bike shop or risking it all and opening a brewery. I came to the conclusion that after a year or two, I’d probably get bored with the bike business.”
By the time his third child arrived, he no longer needed to work at a bike shop. He put in 14-hour days on average with his “fourth child”—the brewery. Grossman’s son, Brian, now 24, remembers being stuffed into “a case of Pale Ale and he’d push me down the bottling line. That’s just what we did if we wanted to see Pops.”
Today, Sierra Grossman is the brand manager. Initially, she planned on a career in healthcare. But she quickly returned to the fold. At 15, her first job was washing dishes at the on-premise brewpub, the Taproom. That led to career advancements: hostess, accounting, merchandising and various non-production jobs. Brian Grossman similarly climbed the company ladder. Ken Grossman, 54, didn’t ask his kids to work for him—they demanded jobs. He merely enforced the work-from-the-bottom-up method.
“I had to start in the cellar handling beer,” Brian Grossman explains. “I showed up for work and there’s a couple of buckets. I expected to be brewing and it was, ‘No, you gotta go scrub the fermenters out.’ I was like, what?!’” In hindsight, he recognizes how important that was. Though he completed the police academy intending to become a sheriff, he now tackles the production side of the business.
That parents with one or more hungry mouths to feed could quit their careers to open a brewery is no longer such a kooky concept. Each year, a handful of new craft breweries open. Successful family businesses often need to start small and it helps if they are rooted in small towns.
Chico is one example. So is Dexter, MI, where Ron Jeffries, inspired by the creativity of barrel-aged farmhouse beers, founded Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. After brewing professionally at four different breweries, Jeffries decided it was time to take on the challenges of starting his own in 2004.
“I had hoped they both would want to work at the brewery, “ says Jeffries, referring to his wife, Laurie, and his 19-year-old son, Daemon. Laurie Jeffries is the office manager, logistician and “the friendly face in our brewery retail area.” For Daemon’s part, his father had been a brewer since he was five, so he grew up around the business. By the time he turned 15, Jeffries says Daemon knew plenty about “schlepping kegs, helping at festivals, eating fries and drinking root beer at the bar while Dad checked fermentations and the like.” He adds that it’s only natural his son started bottling, labeling, building pallets and loading trucks.