Monday marked the thirtieth anniversary of the company Michael J. Lewis--professor emeritus of brewing science at UC Davis--describes as "the most perfect brewery on the planet." Lewis was interviewed by Chico State University English professor Rob Burton as part of Burton's three-year research project that has borne fruit as "Hops and Dreams: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co." ($19.95 in paperback from Chico's Stansbury Publishing). It's a layman's romp through the brewing process and, more importantly, through what was brewing in Ken Grossman's mind when he arrived in Chico in 1972 in a blue Volkswagan bus.
Divided into five chapters, the book surveys beer history, the history of Sierra Nevada (including the never-ending pursuit of "hop harmony") and the guiding lights of "People, Planet, Profit" that make the company's principles applicable in wider contexts. Along the way Burton addresses some of the challenging times, from weathering the craft brew "bubble" of the late nineties, to Ken Grossman's buyout of business partner Paul Camusi; from the tragic death in 2007 of Steve Harrison, "the first employee to be hired by Grossman and Camusi in 1981," to fending off outside interests.
Yet it's also an optimistic story of a microbrewery that "turned its flagship brew, Pale Ale, into the number one craft beer in the country, changing the tastes of a generation of beer drinkers who had grown up with sugary, carbonated, bland lagers. . . . The company soon acquired a national reputation for its cutting-edge conservation policies: recycling more than 99 percent of its production waste and byproducts and reusing spent yeast, hops, grain, carbon dioxide, wastewater, and heat."
The results are astounding; the brewery "has an average annual payroll of around $10 million which mostly stays in the local economy and it enjoys average annual sales of around $150 million."
Burton adds a series of "taproom conversations" in which he learns a life lesson about "flocculation" (you've got to get the yeast just right). He celebrates beer as "liquid bread" (it's "highly nutritious, high in fiber, low in fat and cholesterol") that, as one brewer puts it, "subtly reminds me, with every sip, how lucky I am to be alive, surrounded by beauty and good people, and living right here, right now."