If you’re a fan of craft beer, there’s one specific beer in your personal portfolio that introduced you to the exciting, innovative, flavor-filled world you live in today. Before craft beer’s rise to worldwide prominence, drinkers typically gravitated to one brand of beer and would drink it in mass consumption whenever life called for it. I can still remember my aunt and uncle kicking back Old Milwaukee pounders at family picnics growing up. There were no conversations taking place that sounded like “Ooh, they just put out a dry-hopped Old Milwaukee, we’ll have to try it!” or “Today we’re going to try this barrel-aged version.” Nope. It was Old Mud in its only form forever and nobody batted an eye.
Now, beer consumption is altogether different. Loyalty is defined in a more complex respect. Today’s beer drinker is devoted more to a style of beer rather than a brand. Sentiments of “I’m a Bud fan.” have been replaced with “I’m all-in on IPA.” Additionally, loyalty toward a brewery typically doesn’t revolve around the brewery itself, rather what that brewery comes out with next. Beer drinkers may take their final sip of a new beer, bestow upon it the honor of “Best Beer I’ve Ever Drank,” then immediately order something else because they want to see what else the brewery brings to the table. What have you done for me lately, indeed.
Then there’s Sierra Nevada. This company went nationwide with their distribution in the early 90s because, well, they pretty much had to. Craft beer was still in its infancy and the term “local” was nowhere near being accentuated the way it is today. They put their beer in 50 states and stayed the course, relying on innovation, passion and consistency to familiarize beer drinkers with their product and give us all a high-quality beer we could rely on.
If you told me you’ve never had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, I’d call you a liar. This beer is undoubtedly one of the most popular, respected and recognized artisanal offerings on the market and Sierra Nevada gained those accolades by delivering beer enthusiasts a consistent, flavorful drinking experience every single time. For many, including myself, it was one of the first craft beers we ever consumed. And having just attended a concert a few weeks ago where I enjoyed a couple Pale Ales throughout the show, I’m happy to report it’s as good today as it was 12 years ago when I tipped back my first.
Brian Grossman grew up in the beer industry and has seen a lot change over the years. At the same time, he’s seen a lot within his own company stay the same. His father, Ken, founded Sierra Nevada in Chico, California in 1980 with former partner Paul Camusi and was dedicated to maintaining a family-run operation while bringing quality liquid to shelves and taps throughout Sierra Nevada’s distribution footprint. Brian is now co-owner of the brand and oversees operations at the brewery’s east coast facility in Mills River, North Carolina. His passion for beer knows no bounds and building upon Sierra Nevada’s philosophies of quality and consistency are at the forefront of his plight.
I was fortunate enough to chat with Brian about his life in the beer industry the day after Easter, learning he got to spend his holiday enjoying three of his greatest loves: cooking, drinking beer and spending time with his family. As you’re about to learn first-hand from the head of one of craft beer’s most influential breweries, the industry looks totally different today than it did yesterday and will look totally different tomorrow than it does today.
What has it been like practically growing up in the beer business?
I get that question a lot, worded a few different ways. I don’t have any point of reference. You only get one childhood. I don’t know what it’s like to not grow up in the beer business. I grew up climbing in malt sacks and going down conveyor belts as my slides. That’s probably not normal for most people. I was taken around Europe and Germany for a great deal of my childhood looking for beer equipment. That was a pretty fun experience.
What was the most important lesson your father taught you about the beer industry?
In regards to making beer, it requires a whole lot of work. So make sure you’re passionate about your work and put your best foot forward. He also taught me that it takes a team. Always, always take care of your team. The industry is on a course that we haven’t seen in a long time, really since Prohibition. We can only hope that history doesn’t repeat itself and we go back down to seven operating breweries. I hate to give a cheesy answer, but the most important lesson he taught me was about quality. If you make good beer, you’re going to be alright. You see the huge push for localization and that’s great. But it’s only great if the beer is quality. The amount of bad beer that’s out there right now is shameful. The barrier to entry for brewing is pretty small. You can spend $5,000, get a brew kit and a building, and start making beer. But those brewers haven’t mastered their craft and will put beers out they shouldn’t be because they’re simply not good.
What’s one thing happening in the beer world today you thought you’d never see?
Besides the acceptance of bad beer? The acquisitions. I knew they would happen, but I didn’t know the multiples in which they’d happen. You’re seeing a huge separation between the large, national craft brewers and small, local brewpubs. The middle ground is a pretty scary space right now. Distributors aren’t taking on many new breweries and it’s hard to build a nationwide brand without that.
What have you done to maintain Sierra Nevada’s nationwide distribution footprint amidst the rise of so many independent breweries across the country?
It’s always putting the beer first. We are very proud of our beers and our attention to detail. The discipline in our brewing process allows us to make fantastic beers. Every time you grab a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, you know exactly what you’re going to get. That’s a big thing for consumers, retailers and wholesalers alike. We also have to pay attention to innovation and new styles, be it the New England-style IPAs, goses, sours, barrel-aged beers and others. It’s a
great thing to innovate and it keeps you relevant with drinkers and helps them trust your brand.
Do you see nationwide distribution models changing as more breweries join the mix?
I do see it changing, but I don’t think it’s so much more breweries
joining the mix. It’s the advent of online retail. Amazon is jumping into it, Walmart is going to be jumping into it, too. I can’t tell you what tomorrow looks like for the beer industry, but I can tell you it looks much different than today. My father worked very hard to have a family business and we are fortunate to not have to deal with private equity. With that factor entering the beer world more and more, their big concern is making money and they’re always going to do that. Making good beer doesn’t make you survive anymore. It’s just table stakes. People can be fooled by the scarcity of some beers and can be blind to the fact that these beers could be incorrectly made. But once the “unattainable” products are gone, what you’re left with is your core product and those core products have to deliver.
The Beer Camp collaboration series has seen some innovative beers come to life since its inception. What are your plans to keep this tradition going and who are some breweries you’re looking to work with in the future?
Beer Camp started out years ago as an educational program for distributors and retailers to learn more about the beer-making process. We showed them how we brew our beers and the art and science behind them. Then, we started to get some consumers involved and we got some very creative beers as a result. From there, when we launched our North Carolina brewery, we wanted to make it bigger than just us. It was a celebration of craft beer saying “We made it. Look what we as an industry have done.” That’s when Beer Camp Across America was born. We invited brewers and took a tour bus across the country. It was three weeks and 5,000 miles of pure liver destruction. After that, we asked how we could make it bigger and that brought us Beer Camp Across the World.
This year, we aren’t planning on doing the same international scope. We are going to internalize Beer Camp and collaborate with our own team. We have a bunch of great brewers on staff that wanted a shot at this, so we’ll be doing events in Chico, Calif. and Mills River, N.C. with team members who came up with their own recipes.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is often regarded as the beer that introduced drinkers to craft products. How does it feel knowing your brand has played a major role in growing and shaping the craft beer industry?
It’s something we take great responsibility with. If we can be part of that “a-ha moment” to full-flavored beers, we love that. But it’s not just the introduction. Drinkers are still loving hops, there’s no debate about hop being king. But they’re still looking for drinkable, low-ABV offerings, so we are still seeing people coming back to Pale Ale. We may have the stigma of being an entry beer, but we always see drinkers coming back to it because they know what to
expect and they can enjoy it responsibly without getting torn up.
What are some of the ways you’ve enlightened people and helped them understand what craft beer is all about over the years?
Just walking them through the process. If you go on a tour with me, you’ll see a lot of passion about what we do and how we do it. It’s my art, it’s my focus, it’s my discipline. If you talk to a glass blower who’s passionate about what they do, you’ll be inspired to go blow glass. If you talk to a chef about what they do, you’ll be inspired to go home and try to cook something new. Showing people how passionate we are for what we do is hopefully an inspiration to them.
In regards to craft beer culture, what are your thoughts about how it has grown and developed as craft beer has become more mainstream?
It’s definitely changed, that’s for damn sure. I remember going to the MBAA (Master Brewers Association of the Americas) meetings when I was 8 years old and seeing how small the groups were. It was a very tight knit community that truly wanted to better themselves and learn. Fast forward to today and you’re not seeing the same approach to beer. Back then, it was very difficult to get any share of mind from retailers, distributors or drinkers. We all had to circle the wagons to protect one another and advance our cause, so there was a huge brotherhood out there. Craft beer is in the spotlight today. The focus may be shifting in some respects, but I don’t think many people know what it was like 15-20 years ago compared to what it is today. It’s definitely a different world.
What are some new beers you are working on for 2018?
We’ve definitely got some up our sleeves, that’s for sure. What I can tell you now is they’re all amazing.
What’s next for Sierra Nevada?
The ocean in the craft beer world right now has definitely got some rough waves in it. From retail to distribution to the acquisitions to domestic lagers still losing share, the large brewers will adjust and adapt and who knows what that will truly look like. Who knows what online sales will bring. Who knows what will happen with cannabis legalization taking hold. I don’t truly know what’s next because I want to see how these waves calm down. But you definitely have to make some moves and we are looking at what we can do. It’s a pretty interesting time to be in the beer business right now.
Jason Cercone is the founder of Breaking Brews and is the executive director of Pittsburgh Libations Week. Learn more by visiting breakingbrews.com.