In Chico, a Craft Beer Pioneer Turns 30

Categories: Beer

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Brian Yaeger
Sierra Nevada is the nation's largest independent brewery.
​Nov. 15, 1980: Twenty-six-year-old Ken Grossman brews his first commercial beer.

Last night, Grossman briefly took the stage at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.'s 30th anniversary party in Chico where it all began. Thirty different beers ― most of which have never been poured outside of Chico ― were tapped.

From modest beginnings on a 10-barrel brew system, Grossman now owns and operates the largest independent brewery in America ― Sierra Nevada will produce 700,000 barrels this year. When Sierra Nevada Pale Ale debuted, it boasted 36 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), at least thrice as high as, say, Bud Light. Back in 1980, there were roughly 40 American breweries. Compare that to the 1,600-plus we have today. Numbers like these show why each and every brewery owner has Grossman to thank and why Sierra Nevada remains the blueprint ambitious brewers follow.

The party capped a year-long buildup, during which Sierra Nevada released a series of 30th anniversary beers collaboratively brewed with fellow industry pioneers including Fritz and Ken's Pioneers Stout, brewed with Fritz Maytag, who salvaged Anchor Brewing in 1965 and sold it 45 years later.

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Brian Yaeger
From left, Brian, Ken, and Sierra Grossman.
​In addition to all four anniversary beers, other treats available included a bourbon-barrel-aged version of Life and Limb, collaboratively brewed with Dogfish Head Brewery. Considering it already features maple syrup, it was decadence layered upon richness. We also sampled Hell Raiser, an Imperial Stout infused with cocoa and ancho chiles that would've benefited from even more spice, the Wood-Aged Porter that was pleasantly smoky rather than treacly, and Hopsichord IPA, which stole the hoppy spotlight with a tropical fruit wallop.

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Brian Yaeger
At the Sierra Nevada brewery, Bigfoot, an homage to its winter brew of the same name.
​In case you missed it, the Toronado (547 Haight, at Fillmore) put several Sierra Nevada beers on tap last night that are probably still available, and The Jug Shop (1590 Pacific, at Polk) will conduct a tasting of 13 beers on Friday.

And to think, Grossman once told us, reminiscing about the bike and homebrew supply shops he ran at the time of dreaming up his once crazy notion of an upstart, "I was having a serious internal debate about doing the safer thing and buying the bike shop or risking it all and opening a brewery. I came to the conclusion that after a year or two, I'd probably get bored with the bike business."

We look forward to the 60th anniversary party hosted by Sierra and Brian Grossman, two of Ken's kids who have truly worked their way from the bottom up to become brand and general managers, respectively.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow Brian Yaeger at @yaeger.
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