Like Portland, Oregon, Chico, California is also known as the Rose City. Chico lies about twenty miles east of the I-5 and is a cultural, educational, and economic center of northern Sacramento Valley. On our Northern California beer road excursion, we viewed Chico as a must visit. This, undoubtedly is due to the presence of the area’s number one manufacturing employer, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Sierra Nevada employs around 325 people and for some time was the second largest production craft brewery in the United States behind Boston Beer Company. Since Widmer and Redhook‘s recent merger it is believed that Sierra Nevada is a close third in these rankings as well as the tenth largest brewery overall in the country.
The brewery started as a dream of homebrewer and chemistry and physics student Ken Grossman. Grossman began homebrewing in the mid-1970s and opened a small homebrew shop in Chico before starting the brewery in small five-gallon batches. He and co-founder Paul Camusi eventually put together a hodgepodge of used brewing gear along with dairy and soda equipment to, in 1980, produce the first batch of Sierra Nevada’s signature Pale Ale. After purchasing their first 100 barrel copper brew kettle from Germany, the brewery beefed up supply again in 1997 to meet demand. Commissioning the original coppersmith to make new kettles for Sierra Nevada, the brewery upped its capacity to almost 800,000 barrels per year. Further, the brewery now has a large taproom and restaurant as well as a heated out door patio area, and a venue for live music. Today the Pale Ale is the second most consumed craft beer in the United States behind Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
In 2005, Sierra Nevada received California’s top environmental honor for sustainable practice regarding both waste reduction and recycling. According to the company’s website “In November 2005, the brewery installed a CO 2 gas recovery plant to recover, clean, compress, liquefy, and place the gas into its 50-ton CO 2 storage vessel for reuse. SNBC also installed a $3 million wastewater treatment plant on site. Additionally, the company has reduced landfill and liquid discharges by recycling: 35.5 million pounds of grain; 512,000 pounds of hops; 11,025,000 pounds of yeast; and 800,000 pounds of glass, cardboard, office paper, and other materials.ounds of yeast; and 800,000 pounds of glass, cardboard, office paper, and other materials.” In 2007, Sierra Nevada commissioned one of the nation’s largest private solar power installations. Completed in 2008, and covering a large parking lot area and most of the brewery’s roof, the company says “When completed in 2008, the solar project will produce over 1.4 MW of AC power for the brewery. This—coupled with its existing 1 MW fuel cell plant—will provide for the majority of the brewery’s electrical energy needs with clean power produced on-site. Surplus electrical energy will be available to help supply the overloaded California power grid during peak power usage periods.”
There is so much to be amazed by with Sierra Nevada – the large hop fields adjacent to the brewery, the overall size of the brewery itself, but mostly, the amount of thought and tact that went into constructing something so large. For a brewery of its size, it appears that Sierra Nevada has kept true to their independent roots.
When we arrived at the brewery around 7:30PM, the sun had already set, but the presence of several copper brew kettles glowed from the roadside. We pulled in to what we perceived as Disneyland for craft beer lovers. It was a Saturday night and there was a line out the door for the restaurant. We signed up on the list and were given an electronic notification device that would beep and light up when we were ready to be seated. Then, we ponied up to the indoor bar area to observe a wonderful array of Sierra Nevada beers on tap – many of which we’d never seen before. A wide open dining room adorned with lots of wood, copper, and glass was an epicenter for the Chico night life. This place was simultaneously classy and casual. An impressively large English-style wooded barback loomed overhead. This place was an obvious tourist attraction and meeting place for special occasions. We observed two tables’ singing of “Happy Birthday” and another hosting a batchelorette dinner. Oh, and the beer…
A great thing about the beer at Sierra Nevada is its drinkability. Now, forget those corny Bud commercials (where they snaked Brewpublic’s beer-in-letters design), the beers at Sierra are brewed without adjuncts and for the most part are nothing extreme. Further, they are served the way beer should be served, in real pint glasses – 20 ounce (half liters are acceptable) imperial pints. There’s really nothing like it.
Weizenbock: A rich, hazy orange-golden bodied beer with a thick, off-white head. A big phenolic banana-clove spiced nose lured me in sip after sip. Great wholesome mouthfeel. Faintly tart, gently fruity, with a soft wheat and yeast presence across the tongue. Yum!
Best Bitter: A lightly bubbly copper-golden beer with a cloudy, pillowing off-white head. Sharp and crisp on the palate with a crackery biscuit nose. Tingling crispy mouthfeel and a non-abrasive, sessionable attitude.
Harvest Ale: I had to try this one at the source. This wet hop ale poured a welcoming amber-copper body with a creamy off-white head. Perfect subtle carbonic mouthfeel with grassy and floral hoppiness throughout the drinkin experience. Totally grubbin’!
We sat briefly outside under the space heaters across the barren hop bines bespeckled with city lights in the distance. We were soon seated for a wonderful and affordable dinner. Our waiter was cordial and efficient and checked to see that we were satisfied. We were. Everything from the housemade bread to the condiments was exceptional. After dinner, we headed outside to peer in at the museum-like brewery through large glass paneled windows. Tiles ceilings evoked a modern Sisteen Chapel feel where the center pieces – large German copper brew vessels presided over the ambiance of this mighty brewery. Here is another brewery we could have spent hours if not days discovering, but our time was short and we had to head north before the weekend was over.
Angelo grew up in Maine and is proud to call New England his original home. Cascadia is now his home. He fell in love with great beer in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.
He has been a correspondent for the Portland Tribune's Guest on Tap column, LivePDX.com, and has been featured in publications such as Beer Northwest and PDX Magazine. Angelo also has a great interest in independent music, and has been a booker and organizer for shows around the Portland under the name Pop Tomorrow! Angelo garnered much knowledge regarding beer from his experiences homebrewing, working at Belmont Station, Pyramid Brewing, Upright Brewing, By the Bottle, Beer Revolution, Olde Depot Public House, Falling Sky Brewing, Cascade Brewing, and from many many knowledgeable, passionate, and loving people along the way. It is Angelo's mission to bring "infotainment" and "edumation" to the readers of this website. If you have any questions or comments, or would like to contribute, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org