Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

LIGHTNING REVIEW: Grossman shares story of brewery’s growth, success

Ken Grossman Ken Grossman

Harder than it sounds
After his marriage to Katie Gonser and the birth of their daughter, Sierra (Katie and Ken both loved to camp and hike in the mountains), Grossman continued to sell home brew supplies and work part-time in a bicycle shop to support the family. Becoming serious about starting his own brewery, Grossman hooked up with another home brewing bicycling enthusiast, Paul Camusi, and the partners began drafting a business plan and learning the skills they would need to start a brewery.
"We knew we only needed to find a small market niche, just a fraction of the roughly 150-million-barrel U.S. brewing industry, to make our brewery successful," he says.
It was harder than it sounds.
Grossman signed up for courses at Butte College — supplementing his prodigious self-taught taught skills at fixing machinery and fashioning parts. He took welding, fabrication, agriculture, electricity, plumbing and wiring. He worked at the bike shop and wrote the business plan while Katie worked as a dairy herd inspector, climbing out of bed in the middle of the night to collect milk samples and measure production at dairies.

Rejecting 'the quest for blandness'
Writing about what he wanted in his brewery and its product, Grossman draws a contrast to the mass-marketed beer that dominates America. The big boys make a product without "character or flavor attributes," he says, and they all joined the "quest for blandness" in their determination to offend no palate. "Some brewers seemed to believe that the closer the beer was to water the better — it was easier for people to consume and less of anything to object to."
In a page-long footnote, Grossman explains the role of hops in adding flavor to beer. Hops add a bitter flavor and aroma, and brewers measure that character through a standard known as International Bitterness Units. "Most domestic lagers are currently around 10 IBUs or less," he says. Pale Ale is at 37 IBUs. Craft breweries today, engaged in something of a hoppiness arms race, have pushed IBUs into the 70s or higher, Grossman says.
Grossman underestimated the cost of buying and building the brewhouse, warehouse, bottling line and labeling machine. Grossman didn't own a credit card and had virtually no personal credit history; banks would not loan the partners money. Both partners turned to family members and friends to fund the brewery, and had to go back for more money several times before they finally shipped beer out the door and cashed the first checks.
Grossman scavenged parts from decommissioned dairies, shuttered soft drink bottling companies, failed breweries and scrap yards to outfit the new venture, cleaning, welding, fabricating, rewiring. He had dozens of setbacks along the way — buying used equipment that proved to be worthless or constantly having to refit what he could adapt.
In his chapter on buying ingredients, Grossman tells of getting his first load of malt. It was so heavy that it flattened the tires of his one-ton flatbed truck. He takes the reader through the selection of malt, yeast and hops. He explains how the makeup of water affects the taste of beer. "Our plan for Sierra Nevada had always been to emphasize hops and their delightfully piney, citrusy, bitter flavor," he says. For the brewery's signature Pale Ale, Grossman selected a hop known as Cascade. Released for commercial production in 1972 (and adopted by Sierra Nevada eight years later), Cascade has become the no. 1 American hop used by craft brewers in the U.S., the demand driven in no small part by Sierra Nevada.
Grossman next spends a couple of pages on the hops trading market, which lets the reader understand that aside from all the cooking, building, mechanical, fabrication, technical and financial skills, he learned to be a savvy commodities trader, too.
Chapter 5, "A Bag Full of Dreams But Empty Pockets," will have you rooting for the startup to finally overcome the many obstacles and get beer out the door. It does, and the entrepreneurs are finally on the street, making a sales pitch for their $15-a-case product whose main competitors are imports.
"The initial feedback on our beer was mixed," he says. "Many people enjoyed it, but some felt the flavor was intense and bitter."
Still, Pale Ale was catching on. From the San Francisco Bay Area came positive reviews. "By our second year of production, we were already knocking down walls and adding capacity — continual expansion would be the norm for the next 30 years," he writes.
Grossman and his partner were making $200 a month.