NoCal 1: Sierra Nevada
Howdy, Chris here.
Back on March 19 this year, the brain trust of Baird Brewing hopped on a plane and flew over to San Francisco. For the next ten days, Bryan, John, Daiku-san, Hori-san and I traveled around northern California, visiting breweries and brewpubs, meeting brewers and beer lovers, and attending the Craft Brewer’s Conference. Over the next few weeks, I will write about our trip and various stops we made along the way.
It was a cold rainy day in Northern California when we landed, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. I had long wanted to make the pilgrimage to Sierra Nevada — after all, their pale ale was what got me interested in craft beer back in the early 90s. Since they started in the late 1980s, Sierra Nevada has grown into the second largest craft brewery in the US (and probably the world as well), coming in a 800,000 barrels a year. To put that in perspective, if you drank a 12 pack of Sierra Nevada every day, it would take you 65 years to drink one year’s production. Or to put it another way, 800,000 barrels is almost 200 million pints. Or to put it yet another way, it’s about 1/800th of our size. That’s a lot of beer!
On arrival, we were greeted by Senior Research Analyst Chris Baugh, a homebrewer that I “met” on several Internet homebrew forums. After a couple beers in the bar, we made a quick stop by the gift shop where . . . a case of beer, courtesy of Brewmaster Steve Dressler, was waiting for us. Then we were off to see the brewery.
We started up in the lab, Chris’s playground, where beers are analyzed, tested and tasted. It was an amazing setup, awe inspiring — the equipment in those two rooms alone costs far more than our whole brewery!
We then embarked on an awesome VIP tour of the entire brewery, and believe me, there was a lot of brewery to see. Rather than try to recreate the tour here, I’ll just mention some of the highlights (for me). First, Sierra Nevada brews 24 hours a day, six days a week — on the seventh day, they only brew half the day and spend the other half cleaning. A new batch of wort (unfermented beer juice) is produced every 2 hours, meaning they make 12 batches of beer every day. Unlike Baird, where we get our grain in 25-kilogram sacks, Sierra gets their grains in by rail and truck, and they are loaded into silos. A silo holds around 100 tons of grain, and they use one silo of grain every day. Again, to contrast with us, we generally use 200 kilograms of grain a day, which is 1/5th of a ton.
The second thing that wowed me was how environmentally friendly the whole brewery was. Solar power, fuel-cell power, grain composting, recycling, using bicycles, you name it, they do it. Even CO2 recovery from their fermentation tanks. Our next brewery is going to be more green, but at the moment we can only dream of having such a low carbon footprint.
Then there are the hops. Sierra Nevada does an amazing amount of research, and a big part of their efforts focuses on hops. In the past several years, they have stopped dry hopping the traditional way (throwing a bunch of hops into the conditioning tank and waiting) and started using what they call The Torpedo. Essentially it’s a big stainless tube packed with hops. The Torpedo is then connected to the conditioning tank, and the beer is circulated with a pump from the tank through the hops and back to the tank. Each Torpedo holds around 35 kilos of hops, and as you can see in the picture, there are four Torpedos hooked up to the tank — for a whopping total of 140 kilos of hops. Big batches = Many hops! When I asked Chris how long they Torpedoed the beer, his answer was, “Until it’s done.” I guess some things have to remain a secret.
And there were more hopping tricks up their sleeve as well. Two items especially stood out: a hop strainer to filter out the hops as they come from the kettle, and a hopback, which gets filled with fresh hops for the wort to run through on it’s way to the fermenter. We are definitely getting these in our next brewery! No more hop diving!!!
Overall, there were many many more things I could write about, but this blog is already too long. So, I’ll finish up with a few more random pictures and conclude with a HUGE THANK YOU to Chris Baugh for the fantastic tour and wonderful friendship. I look forward to the day when we can return the favor.