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CBN's Beer Camp : Sierra Nevada
Celebrator Writers Go To Beer Camp

Here's a video of our Celebrator writers (all 16 of us) at Beer Camp at Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico. The beer we made, Celebrator Beer News 25th Anniversary Double Pale Ale, will be released at a few venues frequented by our writers around the country. Look for it soon. Special thanks to videographer Mike Condie for this video.

I’ve watched the spectacular growth of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company from the early ’80s, when I started buying kegs for my wine shop (now The Bistro) in Hayward, Calif. The brewery’s Pale Ale is an icon of brewing in America to this day. A visit to the brewery in Chico, Calif., attests to the amazing success that has been the hallmark of Sierra’s 32 years of existence.

A session at the brewery’s pub-restaurant reveals the amazing variety of beers produced by Sierra Nevada. Always pushing the envelope with beer styles, the brewery also started a program of Beer Camps for industry people, homebrewers and various contest winners who were encouraged to learn about brewing by designing their own beer and then making it on the brewery’s 10-barrel pilot system. Nearly 100 beer camps later, the brewery invited the Celebrator writing staff to brew the publication’s 25th anniversary beer.

A Beer Camp usually consists of eight to 10 people, but 16 of our writers committed to make the journey to Chico from all around the country and Canada. The Sierra staff accommodated our imperial-sized group. Attending Celebrator Beer Camp (see above photo) were (from left) Don Erickson, John Rowling, Tomm Carroll, Brandon Hernández, California Assemblymember Wes Chesbro, Lisa Morrison, Mike Condie, Gail Ann Williams, Jay Brooks, Steve Shapiro, Rick Sellers, Dan Rabin, Pete Slosberg, Mike Pitsker, Tom Dalldorf, Jim “Dr. Fermento” Roberts and Bob Barnes. Those contributing to this article are indicated by their initials at the end of their segments. — T.D.

Always pushing the envelope with beer styles, Sierra Nevada started a program of Beer Camps for industry people, homebrewers and various contest winners.
Sierra: The Early Years

I first visited Sierra Nevada in 1983. Back then, the brewery occupied half of a small warehouse, and counting the hands-on owners, there were only a handful of employees. Today, the Sierra Nevada brewery is a huge complex. The pub alone is twice the size of the original brewery!
The best part? Despite all that growth and success, Sierra Nevada is still firmly in touch with its roots. Torpedo Extra IPA, Ruthless Rye and the Ovila beers may get all the attention nowadays, but the brewery’s Pale Ale and Celebration Ale — the trailblazers, the trendsetters — are still the flagship brews. Maybe that’s why we based our Beer Camp beer on Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. — D.E.

Getting to the Brewery

Following a morning flight from Denver to Sacramento, the drive north to Chico gave me a chance to take in the unfamiliar landscape of rice fields and nut orchards. It also provided an opportunity to get acquainted with three of my fellow “campmates.” Among them was Bob Barnes, the Celebrator’s Nevada correspondent and the only Las Vegas native I know who still calls that city home. Also traveling with us was Sheila Morrissey, who lives near Sacramento. Her good cheer and good palate added much to our group dynamics.

Our chauffer and tour guide was Sheila’s boyfriend and the Celebrator’s Sacramento region reporter, Rick Sellers. Over the next few days, Rick shared not only his extensive knowledge of the local craft beer scene but also his overnight method of brewing the perfect cup of coffee. Never accuse a Celebrator writer of being one-dimensional when it comes to beverage expertise.

We hooked up with a second carload of beer campers at a lunch stop at Sutter Buttes Brewing, an agreeable little brewpub in Yuba City, about an hour south of Chico. It was a fine stop, with good food, good beer and lots of lively conversation. A memorable part of the visit was the Gratzer, an obscure and unusual beer the brewpub had on tap. The pale, light-bodied ale had a distinct, but not overwhelming, smoky character derived from oak-smoked wheat malt. The beer was unique and enjoyable and a fitting kickoff to an outstanding Beer Camp experience. — D.R.

The second stop during our sojourn was the Feather Falls Casino Brewing Company in Oroville. Here I was, barely off the plane from Vegas, and thinking, “Just my luck. Here I come all the way from Vegas, and Dalldorf takes us to a casino!” Unlike Vegas casinos, however, the atmosphere at Feather Falls was much quieter and more laid-back. Also unlike the Vegas versions, to my surprise, the beers are not free while one is gambling. However, given the range of well-crafted brews at only $2 a pint, I forgot to complain.

Brewmaster Roland Allen welcomed us and talked about his lineup of brews. Since landing in Sacramento, I had seen nothing but nonstop rain, which put me in the mood for a rich, roasty stout. The Blackjack Brew fit the bill; this full-bodied, 6% abv sweet stout, with aromas of cocoa, coffee and chocolate, earned a bronze at the 2012 World Beer Cup and a gold at the 2012 West Coast Brew Fest’s Commercial Craft Competition.

Indeed, 2012 was Feather Falls Brewing’s year, as its beers garnered no less than seven brewing medals from three different competitions. It was fitting that we met up with Roland Allen before heading to Chico, as his background includes a nine-year stint as assistant brewer at Sierra Nevada, way back in the early days of the brewery (late 1980s and early 1990s). — B.B.

First Night at Sierra Nevada’s Pub

After traveling from separate cities by plane or car, the various Celebrator Beer Campers finally convened en masse at the Sierra Nevada Taproom and Restaurant on the brewery campus Wednesday evening for beers (of course!) and dinner. For quite a few of us, it was the first time we had met most of our fellow beer scribes, and the resulting camaraderie was as instantaneous and thick as the foamy head on a just-poured glass of Narwhal Imperial Stout on draught — which happens to be one of the many beers we enjoyed that night.

We also met the only non-Celebrator camper who was part of our brew team, the dashing California State Assemblymember Wesley Chesbro (D-North Coast), who authored AB 1812, the bill that ensures that craft beer aged in wooden barrels that previously contained distilled spirits remains legally classified as beer. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill last summer, and it went into effect January 1, 2013. A curious beer geek himself, Chesbro fit right in, hobnobbing with Ken and Steve Grossman as well as us writers.

The entrées from the restaurant’s executive chef, Micheal Iles, were sumptuous: Pale Ale BBQ Ribs, Coconut Scallops, Free-Range Chicken Pot Pie and Sierra Nevada New York Steak were but a few of the items we ordered. Of course, there was a plentitude of Sierra’s brews to complement the food, including some taproom-only selections like Hoptinite, Knightro, Old Chico Brand Crystal Wheat and a couple of beers from previous Beer Camps. What a welcoming and auspicious start to our brewing adventure! — T.C.

Deciding on a Beer Style

In addition to the beers, each taster’s sensory profile is tested so that those in the lab who conduct the panels know the strengths, weaknesses, sensitivities and “blind spots” of each participant.
The next day, we all trudged up the stairs to the Sierra conference room and pulled up chairs at the long table. After a slideshow on Sierra history by Steve Grossman, we got down to the tough business of hammering out our brew style and recipe. Suggestions were all over the brewing board, from a Belgian-style fruit ale to a chocolate imperial stout, but after a bit of discussion, we all decided to honor the brewery granting us this rare privilege by brewing an homage to Sierra’s own flagship Pale Ale. The then-unnamed beer thus developed from the shouted and whispered notions of a group of beer writers.

We landed on the idea of taking the original Sierra Pale recipe, doubling the malt bill and adding some newer hops for a beer that we thought of as an imperial pale ale. The grains used were pale malt in copious amounts, Caramel 60 and Golden Promise for a little something extra. Bravo and Cascade hops went into the boil, while the dry-hop addition was to include more Cascade, symbolizing Sierra Nevada’s past, Citra for the present, and Hop 366, a new experimental hop, for the future. Dry hops were added to the tank with the help of a hop torpedo, a large cylindrical tube filled with hops and shot directly into the solution for full effect. No wonder Sierra calls its IPA by that name! Of course, we used Sierra’s house ale yeast for fermentation.

That was a hard morning’s work! Time for lunch. — M.P.

Sensory Panel Tasting

Quality is apparent in all of Sierra Nevada’s beers, but how they achieve that quality involves more than just paying attention to detail. Every batch of beer is put through a rigorous sampling and tasting every day. Different groups are involved (it’s called “triangle tasting”), and employees from all around the brewery can participate in these panels. In addition to the beers, each taster’s sensory profile is tested so that those in the lab who conduct the panels know the strengths, weaknesses, sensitivities and “blind spots” of each participant.

We got to put our own palates through the same paces with a blind tasting of beers in Sierra Nevada’s sensory lab. The lab is a small room with several carrels. There’s not much at each stall: a small video screen, a computer mouse on a small writing surface, and a panel on the opposite wall that opens up to the lab on the other side.

After you indicate that you’ve read the instructions on the screen, the panel on the wall pops open and three glasses of beer appear. One of the beers is spiked with an off-flavor, and you are supposed to determine which one it is. Once you make your selection, you enter it on the screen, and the hidden computer tells you if you are right or wrong. It also tells you what the off-flavor was and why it showed up in the beer. The same thing happens again, with a different off-flavor.

Sounds easy? Well, the spiked beer is very lightly tainted. I would guess that, if it were consumed at a party or any other event when you’re not focusing on just the beer (which is pretty much all the time for the majority of beer drinkers), most people wouldn’t even notice it. But that’s the level of precision that Sierra Nevada employs. The brewery wants every bottle, every pint, to be perfect. — L.M.

Sierra Nevada Hospitality

One of the most impressive aspects of Beer Camp is how deeply ingrained the program has become in the company’s culture. Most breweries, while open to the public for tours, are hardly welcoming spaces — not because brewers aren’t eager to share their space, but because of the utilitarian nature of most brewery environs. Yet Sierra Nevada has found a way to bring in groups of individuals, some of whom have never set foot in an operating brewery, and make them feel safe, comfortable and at home without disrupting the massive daily operations.

Far from making our group feel as though we were intruding, Beer Camp was structured so that Sierra Nevada staffers had time to explain each step in the process: everything from inventory, ingredient preparation and sustainability practices to brewing, cellaring and packaging. And because Beer Camp is such a regular occurrence, the employees who interact with campers are adept at explaining their areas of expertise, fielding questions and conveying the key aspects of the company that make it so uniquely admirable. The generous brand of hospitality offered by Sierra Nevada’s staff makes this the most luxurious form of “camping” around.

The opening night camper dinner at the company’s Taproom restaurant set the stage for immersion in all things Sierra Nevada. Campers enjoyed cuisine made with house beers and estate-grown ingredients, and we were given the hop-green light to try any Sierra Nevada beer from a tap list nearly 20 strong. That sudsy stock includes brews from previous Beer Camp sessions (talk about inspiration!).

With so much great beer and food to try, it’s nearly a relief that campers get to visit the Taproom several times over the course of their stay so they don’t have to play Sophie’s Choice with the bill of fare. A gargantuan feast out on the town at a Chico steakhouse called Basque Norte (where an entire quail was an add-on side dish) was wonderful and provided an opportunity to kick back and enjoy some sterling conversation that, believe it or not, eventually went beyond the topic of beer.

The road through Beer Camp is coated in red carpet. Few are the times I’ve been made to feel as welcome and taken care of… and this comes from a food and travel writer who’s had the privilege of experiencing hospitality from here to Europe. — B.H.

Biking Around the Brewery

The generous brand of hospitality offered by Sierra Nevada’s staff makes this the most luxurious form of “camping” around.
Like any self-respecting camp, Beer Camp does not skimp on recreation. After another sumptuous lunch, our group was led to two Sierra Nevada bicycle-powered mobile bars for a tour around the vast grounds. Cans of beer in hand, seated facing the bar, we pedaled to move forward until we got to the HotRot composter. Some 50 feet in length, HotRot accepts all of the organic waste from the restaurant, plus some spent hops. The giant composter rapidly turns this waste into clean dirt that is used in the brewery’s fields and in the organic garden that grows food for the restaurant.

Our beer-fueled pedal power next delivered us to the expansive bottling and packaging plant. Workers and visitors alike were accessorized with stylish foam earplugs and fashionable safety goggles. Amidst the din of the filling, labeling and packaging assembly lines, our camp “counselor,” Steve Grossman, noticed an alarming number of bottles being x-rayed and automatically rejected for flaws in the glass. The bottles had no visible imperfections. He alerted several of the employees on the floor, and together they resolved the problem by finding and cleaning a plastic lens screen in the device. Meanwhile, the swarm of CBN writers happily snapped hundreds of photos of bottles spinning along on the line nearby. — G.A.W.

Final Tasting from the Library

After the R&D lab tour and sensory tasting exercises, we followed camp leader Steve Grossman up to the conference room to say our goodbyes. We were pleased to see owner and founder Ken Grossman seat himself at the head of the long table to make himself available for questions. It became apparent that Sierra Nevada was not quite finished with us.
Out came bottles of beer from the Sierra library, including Fritz and Ken’s 30th Anniversary stout, a vertical of aged Bigfoot Barleywine and Terra Incognita. The latter was a collaborative project brewed with Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company exclusively for attendees of the SAVOR craft beer and gourmet food festival, held in Washington, D.C. We also got to taste the about-to-be-released Ovila Visions of Sugar Plums, a Belgian-style quad made with plums grown in the Abbey of New Clairvaux orchards.

While we enjoyed these libations, Ken Grossman got a question (he had to expect this from a roomful of beer journalists) about the mysterious origins of the brewery’s Pale Ale yeast strain. He was asked whether the yeast he was using came from the Ballantine brewery, one of the few ale brewers in the United States at that time. He said he couldn’t confirm that the yeast was from Ballantine, but he had been referred to the head brewer there when the culture, obtained from the Siebel Institute, did not perform as expected. He was told, “Oxygenate the hell out of it.” It worked and Sierra Nevada was on its way. — S.S.

Celebrator Beer Camp

What a diverse group of individuals we were, from the “senior” members (Tom Dalldorf and me) to the obviously younger writers (i.e., no gray hair). We all came to Chico, drawn by the opportunity to inhale the Sierra Nevada Brewing culture (well, OK, the beer also). From Alaska to San Diego, we brought a wide range of experiences (and beers) to share.

Although most of us had met only a few other members of the group, there was an instant click! It was fun to meet the people behind the words we had been reading for years. “Camaraderie” is an overused word, but it describes how we felt immediately; we were all a part of this great magazine for which we have been writing. Companionship is another word that describes beer writers when they get together.

Since we came from such various backgrounds, the opportunity to compare notes on the amazing selection of beers available in the brewery’s taproom was really enlightening (19 beers on tap equals a lot of discussion!). Then there were the really late-night sessions. On our first night, Tom gave us a choice between the two three-litre bottles he had stashed in his room. Did we choose Unibroue’s Don de Dieu or Russian River’s Supplication? We chose the latter, as it had been personally signed by Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo for Tom’s 70th birthday. Besides, how often do three litres of Supplication come your way?

On the last night, we finished up at Tom’s home, sharing some beers from our hometown breweries. We also assisted him in rummaging around and cleaning out his cellar. Let’s just say that we found some interesting beers! — J.R.

A huge thanks to Ken Grossman and his amazing staff for an unbelievable education in beer creation and appreciation. We are all looking forward to trying our Celebrator Beer News 25th Anniversary Double Pale Ale. The beer will be available in late January and in February at a few handpicked venues selected by our writing staff, at the Sierra Taproom and at the Celebrator’s 25th anniversary party, which will close this year’s S.F. Beer Week on February 17. Hope to see you there! — T.D.

Sierra Nevada Brewery (duh!)

Beer Camp attendees (from left) Don Erickson, John Rowling, Tomm Carroll, Brandon Hernández, California Assemblymember Wes Chesbro, Lisa Morrison, Mike Condie, Gail Ann Williams, Jay Brooks, Steve Shapiro, Rick Sellers, Dan Rabin, Pete Slosberg, Mike Pitsker, Tom Dalldorf, Jim “Dr. Fermento” Roberts and Bob Barnes

Sierra Nevada Brewery's Centrifuge

Blind Tasting Booth @ the QC Lab

Beer Camp's Scott Jennings

Beer Campers learn the ropes with Scott

Beer Camp's Centrifuge

Inspecting bottles from the line

Yeast for pitching

Laying on hands for hops

Cascade hops used for CBN beer

Assemblyman Wes Chesbro @ Beer Camp

Lisa Morrison says, "Some of this can't hurt!"

Jay Brooks makes the hop addition

Our mash swirl

Sierra's Peddle Bar

Tom Dalldorf, Ken Grossman and Pete Slosberg @ the Sierra Nevada pub

Tom Dalldorf and John Rowling with Supplication

The Beer Camp group after the Supplication tasting

Tom finishing off the Supplication



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