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Sierra Nevada accelerates launch schedule

Stan Cooper, co-manager of the Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River, explains the company plans to the Mills River Town Council. Stan Cooper, co-manager of the Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River, explains the company plans to the Mills River Town Council.

MILLS RIVER — The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is accelerating plans to begin production in Mills River, moving the opening up from November to July of next year.

In the first public presentation about the brewery and its campus on the banks of the French Broad River, brewery co-manager Stan Cooper told the Mills River Town Council that demand for Sierra Nevada craft beer is exceeding projections and building pressure for an earlier startup.

“We’re kind of escalating our plan,” Cooper said. “We’re going to make an attempt to get it done in July. We met with (engineer) Bill Lapsley yesterday to try to figure out how we can get that road done by July.”

The road work includes a major overhaul of Fanning Bridge Road, a new intersection with traffic signals at N.C. 281 and a round-about that will allow workers, visitors and tractor-trailers to move easily in and out of the brewery site.

The company is using a structural engineer from the headquarters in Chico, Calif., for design but other than that it is using lcoal architects and contractors on the site work and building.

The company is working with Blue Ridge Community College to process applications.

“Once we get that up and going everybody will be able to go on the web and see postings,” Cooper said.

Human resource director Carrie Alden explained a benefits and perks package that includes an onsite medical clinic and daycare center, beer bucks good for a case of beer (or another option if the employee chooses) and 401K and profit sharing program that can ultimately grow to savings of 25 percent of the employee’s paycheck.

“It’s just amazing to me how proud people are to work there,” Alden said. “We want to be able to replicate how proud employees are in Chico and do that same thing in North Carolina.”

New employees start automatically with a 6 percent payroll deduction for the 401K savings plan, which can increase 1 percent a year to 10 percent. Profit sharing is distributed to employees based on revenue.

So far the company has hired a head brewer and quality control manager and it next will bring on a package manager, environmental health and safety officer and electrician. Those management team members will  spend time in Chico, where “we will infuse them in the Sierra Nevada culture,” she said. “Many of them will be part of the commissioning here.”

Once the key managers are on board, the company will hire a brewing cellar supervisor, packaging supervisors, maintenance supervisors and leads, systems analyst, warehouse supervisor, sanitation supervisors and grounds supervisor.

When visitors tour the plant, Alden said, they invariably comment on three aspects: “Wow it’s so clean, you’ve got a lot of technology here and everyone is so happy,” she said.

By July of 2013, the plant will have hired about 60 people — “what we need to get the plant going and the beer out the door,” Cooper said.

A second wave of hiring will include 75 to 80 full- and part-time employees who have experience in the restaurant and hospitality field to work in the visitors center, tasting room, restaurant and outdoor facilities. The brewery expects to eventually have a dock on its half mile of riverfront where river kayakers can park while they visit the brewery.

“There’s talk about having another small brewery. Why would we do that?” he said. “We have a program that’s called beer camp, and what we do now is bring people to Chico and they make beer, we help them design it, we provide the equipment along with some of the expertise, we have a brewmaster that helps them. It’s a two-day process. You can imagine it’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun.”

The brewery wants to add a beer camp here, too, where visitors will stay overnight.

Cooper made clear that the company and his boss, Ken Grossman, place a high priority on sustainability.

“One of the things Ken’s really big on is what he calls complete the circle,” he said. The plans call for a garden to grow food for the restaurant.

“Another thing we asked about was alternative power. Out in California, Ken pioneered solar panels, one of the first privately owned arrays in California,” he said. “We actually have 10,200 panels on site. He also was one of the first people to put in hydrogen fuel cells. A really good day in the summer we can generate 97 percent of our total power on site. Will we do that here? Yeah, we’re going to do some solar panels in the parking lot, we’re looking at some fuel cells.”

Roadwork will include widening Fanning Bridge Road and adding shoulder and building the roundabout.

“DOT’s been phenomenal,” Cooper said. “They’ve just been really great to work with. They’ve got some really creative ideas. We really expect construction to start sometime in October. They’ll have it fully completed with the new road by May or June at the latest of next year.”

Alden said the brewery campus should be a nice place to visit.

“When I went to the Biltmore House, what I thought was what we have will look a lot like that,” she said. “It’s kind of the quality we’re used to.”

Mills River mayor Roger Snyder said he thought the plans looked great. He encouraged the company to speak publicly because people are wondering about the plant.

“The biggest question I get is when are they hiring and where do I put in my application,” he said.