The story of Sierra Nevada’s maverick founding father
By Derrick Peterman
When compiling a list of notable California entrepreneurs, people like David Packard, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk usually spring to mind. Given the national obsession with Sierra Nevada Brewing’s signature pale ale, founder Ken Grossman’s name should also appear on any such list.
In Grossman’s long awaited autobiography Beyond the Pale, readers learn the story of Sierra Nevada Brewing, from humble beginnings in Chico to current status as a national craft brewing institution. The book is a fascinating self-portrait of someone who over thirty years ago hand built a brewery out of little more than discarded scraps salvaged from junk yards.
Back in those days, distribution meant Grossman driving his old pickup truck to the few stores that would actually sell his beer. His typical twelve-plus hour days were mainly spent returning antique bottling lines to functionality, restoring used refrigeration equipment covered in chicken blood and feathers, or welding together discarded dairy equipment into brewing systems. Building a brewery is still a major undertaking today with modern built-to-order small scale brewing equipment. One can only imagine the challenges Grossman faced while creating a product for the almost non-existent niche beer market.
Ingredients were also hard to come by back then. The first time Grossman visited a production malt house, he nearly destroyed his pickup truck hauling over two tons of malt from San Francisco back to his Chico headquarters. Grossman even found a way to incorporate leftover hops larger breweries had no use for into some of his early brews.
Grossman’s problem solving skills, creative talents and seemingly unstoppable energy are evident throughout the book. At times, I found it exhausting just reading about the sheer number of projects and challenges he tirelessly undertook to build up a major brewery from scratch.
In addition to being a craft brewing pioneer, Sierra Nevada is also known as a leader in environmental sustainability. Readers of Beyond the Pale may be surprised to find Grossman’s impetus for environmentalism has always gone hand-in-hand with a concern for the bottom line.
“Most of Sierra Nevada’s very early energy efficiency projects were driven by economics, and as our production grew, I started to pay more attention to the fact that we, like all breweries, are a large consumer of resources in the form of gas, electricity, and water. In addition to my general sensibility about saving resources, we had the opportunity to save precious dollars as well,” he emphasizes.
Over time, Grossman was eventually able to take his brewery almost completely off the grid. His initial motivation was largely due to Y2K concerns. Whether you find it encouraging or slightly disappointing, Grossman’s reputation as an environmental steward is largely a product of his capitalistic drive and puritan work ethic.
However, we do get glimpses of his altruistic side. At one point Grossman concedes, “Some of the ideas I pursue don’t make sense using cost benefit analysis taught in business school. Making money is important because it allows us to prosper as a company, but it also allows us to be leaders and show that businesses can be successful doing the right thing.”
Grossman emerges as someone more comfortable fixing a bottling line or researching an arcane question of brewing chemistry than discussing various hop blends for his next killer IPA. As we learn, brewing beer may sound like a glamorous lifestyle, but it’s mostly about plumbing, sanitation, and lifting heavy bags of grain. Professional brewers actually spend little of their time concocting beer recipes. Much of their effort is directed on the tedious task of ensuring that each batch tastes exactly the same as the previous one.
At times, the book is rather wonkish, but Grossman can certainly be forgiven for this. His intense focus on every detail of his business and the beer it produces are the key to his success.
Despite Grossman’s candid admission in the preface that he was not excited about writing a book about himself, he does come through for his readers with a thoughtful, insightful, and comprehensive history of Sierra Nevada Brewing. Craft beer drinkers will find plenty to keep them interested from beginning to end.