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Sierra Nevada prepping for visitor experience

Brian Grossman leads a media tour of the new Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Brian Grossman leads a media tour of the new Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

MILLS RIVER — During a tour of the new Sierra Nevada brewery, Brian Grossman led visitors into the brewhouse, where four magnificent kettles extended from floor to ceiling. Shaped — ironically — like an upside-down wine glass, the kettles had copper skin and curved lines.

 

"We like that style of shell," Grossman said. "Every year the curves are different. It's like looking at older model cars. My father and I went over to Germany and actually bought three breweries and had one of our team members go over and rip these brewhouses out."
They shipped the vessels to a brewery equipment maker in Germany and then had them shipped to Mills River.
The Grossmans didn't have to spend the money on copper vessels and pay to dismantle cooper vessels from a brewery and have them reconditioned and shipped across the ocean. The outer shell is nothing more than an esthetic covering. It's a part of the character of the new Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., a splendid marriage of modern-day automation and old-world looks, of manufacturing efficiency and a hands-on obsession with quality, of beer-out-the-door urgency and the pursuit of perfection. It is part of the overall sensibility that Mills River brewery co-manager Stan Cooper has said will make the Sierra Nevada plant "a brewery showcase for the world."
Grossman, 29, talked about the work that had led the Chico, Calif.-based brewing company to this day, the first media unveiling of the plant.
"We had 75 inches of rain last year," he said, describing the delays caused by the mud and the downpours. As if to underscore the fickle Blue Ridge Mountains weather, a windstorm blew into town on Sunday, toppling trees.
Did Grossman come out to see?
"Oh, yeah," he said. "I didn't have any power at my house."

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Gearing up for capacity

Grossman, who co-manages the brewery with longtime Sierra Nevada executive Stan Cooper, could take a half-day off from the job site on Monday because the plant has in recent weeks achieved a major milestone. It's making beer.
That has been the goal from the start, of course. The company built an East Coast brewery, its only other plant, because it was overcapacity in Chico.
"With 30 years of knowledge of breweries, this brewery was laid out very, very process driven, linear," he said. "There's very little beer waste. Chico was designed to be 50,000 barrels. It's a million now. So we've had to shoehorn things in to just make it fit. Chico likes to be around 800,000 or so. That was a big driving force behind this brewery. The pace of operation is going to be roughly 300-to-350,000 barrels a year pace. We obviously have not done yet that. We're gearing up to support that operation."
The brewery is sparkling and clean top to bottom, in every corner. It's new but those who have toured the Chico plant say new is not why. It's just the way the Grossmans run their operation.
"Everybody's always talking about the tile, the tile, we put it on our blog," he said, as he pointed out floor tile in the brewhouse. "Here's the tile."
Like a lot of things in the brewery, it looked good and had science behind it.
Over the ages "a brewery needed to be clean," he said. "There is an old saying that you should be able to walk around with a piece of white bread and go to your brewery and wipe down everything and the brewmaster should be able to eat it.
"You want to be able to hose things down. You've got to clean organic material, so there's a lot of chemistry."
The tile is German, like the copper vessels. The Grossmans flew German tile setters in to lay the tile.


Keep the lines going

The bottling line is engineered with double-redundancy to make sure that the filling lines can keep funneling beer into bottles. Beer that's ready to bottle can't sit for long in a tank. It's a delicate process. Breakdowns can be catastrophic. So the bottling line was designed with built-in workarounds. If the box-maker goes down, the line is switched to the side that's still making boxes. The line can bottle more than 1,000 bottles a minute.
"The reason we had two lines in Chico was if something happens to one line we can always get beer out the door," he said. Same thing in Mills River. If you can't brew it, bottle it and ship it, you can't sell it. Beer out the door matters.
The lab is responsible for testing every ingredient and finished product, and it played a critical role in researching and adjusting the raw materials and the processes so that Mills River-brewed beer Chico-brewed beer are identical.
"Everybody says, 'Water water water. That's why you came here is the water,'" he said. "That was one of the reasons why we came here. Aligning beer with California was paramount. It's not just the raw material that you're using. It's also vessel design, different types of boiling systems, different types of hopping systems. It's not just a mimic over. We think we got it."
Someone asked whether a truly independent third party had tasted the East Coast and West Coast products and pronounced them identical.
"They don't know they're doing that," he said, "but yeah, we've smuggled it into our tastings for the last few months in Chico, and no one's tasted a difference."


'Visitor experience'
What the public will see is the tours, the tasting room, the pub and restaurant — what everyone wearing a Sierra Nevada insignia calls "the visitor experience."
The restaurant at the Chico brewery serves just under 1,000 plates a day. In Mills River the company is building a 44,000-square-foot pub and restaurant designed to 1,400 plates a day. The pub will include a jazz club-like indoor space as well — similar to the Big Room in Chico. And eventually, the brewery plans to build an outdoor stage on the high side of a slope that descends toward the French Broad River.
A connection to the French Broad River and greenways throughout the property are all part of longer range vision for the 184-acre property but for now Grossman wants to pursue one thing at a time — well, make that several things. Getting the beer line up to capacity and opening the indoor visitor attractions come first. Guided tours and the tasting room are likely to come first, possibly by July, with the pub and restaurant open after that.

Grossman strongly recommends the guided tour ending in the tasting room — it takes about an hour and half — versus a self-guided walk-through. The company is hiring and training tour guides now. It takes about eight weeks of training to get the tour guides to a level of expertise the company demands.


Down the rabbit hole

The attention to detail is no less evident outside than inside.
The visitor experience, Grossman said, starts with the drive onto the Sierra Nevada property from Ferncliff Park Drive (renamed from Fanning Bridge). Near the end of the walk to the roundabout, he pointed to the road to the north, where tractor-trailers haul in hops and malt and trucks haul out fresh beer.
"We re-engineered the hill," he said. "We flattened it a bit. We didn't want it to be awkwardly flat. We raised the back berm about 12 feet, and we did that so the trucks disappear almost instantly" from the visitor road sight line.
It's one more detail that the brewery's designers took into account. It is part illusion, like the look of Disney World, but also like Disney in that it leaves no detail neglected.
Grossman likes movies and he uses movie metaphors to describe the imagination behind the design. He uses two fantasies to describe the idea behind the stonewalls, decorative lighting and carefully tended landscaping.
"The analogy I use is when Alice falls down the rabbit hole," he said. "It's a journey. There's quite a bit of a distance, just shy of a half mile, from the roundabout to the brewery on this road. And to make sure people knew they're on the right spot we'll do an indicator down there, a big kettle or something. And then when you walk up this hill, what you'd call the driver's field of view, you don't really see any of the brewery. You walk (or drive) and all of a sudden the brewery just kind of pops out.
"The analogy I use is when Dorothy lands and it goes from black and white to color when she walks out the door," he added. "That's sort of the imagery that we wanted to show."

 

AT A GLANCE

  • Total property: 184 acres, mostly wooded and undeveloped.
  • Footprint of buildings including the brewhouse, bottling lines, warehouse, administrative headquarters, wastewater treatment, power generation and restaurant and pub: 22 to 25 acres.
  • Beer production goal: 350,000 barrels a year.
  • Brands now produced: Pale Ale and Torpedo (Sierra Nevada’s top sellers).
  • Tours and tasting room opening: Projected “July-ish.”
  • Pub and restaurant will be open after that.
  • Employees: About 100 fulltime in production, 150 part-time in pub restaurant, beer camp and other parts of the “visitor experience” when those features open.
  • Investment: At least $107.5 million, although county officials expect SNBC to easily surpass that.
  • Henderson County and state economic development incentives: $5.24 million over seven years.