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Tanks a lot: Sierra Nevada receives a big shipment

A convoy of escorts and trucks hauling 50,000-gallon tanks approach the Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River. A convoy of escorts and trucks hauling 50,000-gallon tanks approach the Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River.

MILLS RIVER — Up before first light, Brian Grossman waited on King Street in Hendersonville Sunday, March 17, for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.'s biggest delivery.

Just before 8 a.m. the cargo came rumbling up the street. Led by a pilot vehicle with a long pole to measure the height of overhead obstructions and bucket trucks to raise power lines and escorted by police cruisers, two flatbed trailers carried the first fermenting tanks en route to the brewery now under construction at Ferncliff Industrial Park in Mills River.
BrianGrossmanBrian GrossmanRanging from 400- to 1,600-barrel (roughly 50,000 gallons) capacity, the German-made fermenting tanks crossed the Atlantic in seven days then made their way over land from Charleston to Mills River. The brewery will receive 28 tanks in all, two or four at a time. Each trip, the flatbeds have to be accompanied by a convoy of escorts. At 16-feet in diameter, the tanks cannot always fit under bridges and power lines, meaning the haulers have to find alternate routes or wait on cherry pickers to clear the way. They travel as early as possible.
"You want to make sure the roads are as empty as possible," Grossman. "You don't want to cause any undue stress on people."
Grossman has a big job.
He has two new babies, if you count the brewery. His father, Sierra Nevada co-founder and CEO Ken Grossman, has assigned him the job of getting the plant up and running. Brian and his wife, Gina, have a three-month-old son, Jaxon. Grossman said he's gotten adjusted to the move from northern California to North Carolina. Crews are working feverishly to get the new brewery in operation.
"Chico is at 100 percent of capacity, and right now it's just getting this brewery up and running to relieve some of the stress that Chico's at," he said. "Chico's running at almost a million barrels right now, which is about the upper limit of Chico."
Work is under way at the site on the French Broad River near the Asheville Airport on the brewery, a 125,000-square-foot warehouse and a wastewater treatment facility. Later, the company plans a visitors center, tasting room, restaurant and pub, but those plans are secondary to starting production.
"The visitor experience is a box on paper right now," Grossman said. "Right now (the goal is) just get this brewery up and running correctly and later on we'll think about the customer experience. We're very hands on. We design things ourselves. We don't have the mental capacity right now to take on another project."

Test brewing this summer
Grossman has the science to think about, starting with the main ingredient: water. The brewery will use well water from a good supply that it found on site. Getting the water just right is essential. The largest craft brewer in America has no desire to change the flavor of its award-winning line of beers.
"We'll adjust the water chemistry to make them identical," he said of Mills River and Chico water. "Water is roughly 90 percent of what's in beer so it will have a huge impact. You have to deal with sugars that are converted in the mash and different alkalinities and pH, along with other compounds will affect how you convert the starches and the sugars. We can adjust that."
Grossman can't project exactly when the brewery will send its first load of beer out the door.
"It all depends upon the commissioning process," he said. "There's the best of times and there's the worst and we're probably somewhere in the middle. We're hoping to be test brewing in July or August, and depending on how commissioning goes our plan is to have Celebration Ale coming out of here (by fall). That's one of our seasonable beers. We'll have Pale Ale, Torpedo and hopefully our seasonal out here.... Those are the majority of our sales between those three."
The commissioning is a test stage that covers the process down to the tiniest detail.
"You've got everything from any sort of oil (inside the tank) that was left over from the manufacturing process of stainless steel, any sort of dust from polishing, bringing boilers on line, making sure the steam traps work, making sure refrigeration systems work, it's everything," he said.
And when it's done, is there a tasting? Grossman stays in chemistry professor character to answer.
"We'll do both analytical analysis with machines as well as with human sensory," he said.

70 trucks per day
The top managers here have hired several managers for the production work, and those managers are assembling their teams.
When the Mills River plant reaches capacity of 350,000 barrels a year, some 70 trucks a week will roll out of Old Fanning Bridge Road to N.C. 280 to I-26 to warehouses up and down the East Coast. The DOT is improving the road and putting up a new stoplight on N.C. 280.
Sierra Nevada has less interest in greater overall production, at least right now, than it does saving on transportation costs. There's a saying in the brewing industry: beer is heavy. It's costly to ship.
The big sellers Grossman mentioned are just three of many more flavors the brewery makes, most of which consumers here don't see.
"We'll maybe have some more flavors available but the shelves don't really get bigger, is the problem out here, so we won't have more shelf space than we've currently got," he said. "If you have 15 new products you don't have spots for 15 new beers on the shelf. It's a lot more sustainable for us to make beer out here than ship it across the country."
The capacity of the Mills River plant could gradually double to 750,000 barrels a year. But for now the main goal is to take the pressure off the overtaxed Chico plant and save money on shipping.
The byproduct, spent yeast, spent hops and spent grain, could go to cattle.
"About 10 percent of a cow's diet can be made up of spent grain," Grossman said.
A reporter told him he had heard an area farm agent say there are not enough cows in North Carolina to consume all the used grain the brewery will ship out.
Grossman grinned.
"It'll be close," he said. "We're working on it."