On a liquid-smooth decent into Sacramento, my upper bicuspid pops like it was hit by a road-side bomb. It’s all “black hawk down” in my mouth as I writhe in near fetal-position. Grasping two empty micro bottles of Hornitos Tequila, the lady next to me asks if I’m okay. Getting a visit from the goddamn tooth beaver before an epic week is the last thing one needs. Should I rip the tooth out myself? Should I go to an emergency dentist? One thing’s for sure, I’m not going to miss a minute of Sierra Nevada Beer Camp.
Bags grabbed, five other campers and I hitch a ride to Chico with Steve Grossman of Sierra Nevada. A ninety-minute drive normally, however rush hour traffic in the rain makes it an even two. I ride shotgun. Beer knowledge is being bounced around the van like ping pong. Steve is stoic at the wheel, looking mildly like Paul Newman in the movie ‘Winning’. “Where are you all from?” Steve asks, “where are you going to have your kegs tapped?” I nervously massage my gums and search yelp for dentists in Chico near my hotel. “Out of the Park Pizza in Anaheim Hills” I mumble. “It’s one of the best craft/homebrew friendly places in OC.” I say. “Never heard of it” says Steve.
An hour later at 7:03 P.M. Ripe from the emergency dentist, I bounce into Sierra Nevada’s tap room for pre-camp supper. All of the winners of Beer Camp #94 are at the table, some I recognize from their videos. My first beverage of camp goes down medicinally – Ovila Dubbel aged in pinot barrels. It’s dirty red, dry, fruity, with a fine bubbly mouthfeel that massages my throbbing gums like jacuzzi jets. The second Dubbel chases down an 800mg Ibuprofen and a leg of lamb. What happens in Chico stays in Chico! The dentist said my sinus cavity popped from the cabin pressure, striking a nerve on my tooth by the say, I’ll be fine.
Next morning Wed. Dec 5, 7:48 A.M. – Beer Camp #94 is officially open! Safety goggles and earplugs in tow, it’s time for Sierra Nevada History 101. Steve Grossman fires through a PowerPoint filled with 30+ years of photos from the beginning. I sit bleary-eyed in this beer fueled fantasy, reminiscing about my first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I recall pulling one out of an icy cooler at a party with no idea what it was or who brought it. I was shocked. Twenty plus years later, the bright citrus hop aroma and flavor still sticks with me. I can close my eyes and think of that beer and actually taste it. The smells walking around this brewery bring it all back…and it smells like victory! (Here’s my horrible contest entry video by the way, it mildly pokes fun at this Blair Witch Project trailer.)
The “Great Debate” – Imagine a bunch of homebrewers collaborating on a beer the first time they meet. Throw those people in a conference room at Sierra Nevada with Scott Jennings, current lead pilot brewer and future Sierra Nevada North Carolina head brewer. We have to nail down a style of beer we want to brew in one hour. There are no limits! Scott guides us quickly like he’s leading a seance (without holding hands, sadly). I throw out the Belgian Double IPA idea, (another camper coined it as a “Dubbel Double”) which seems like a great start. One camper sets the tone stating we should do something unique with this rare opportunity. We all agree. The final decision is a Belgian Tripel-ish malt base fused with a Double IPA…and Black. I call it a “Big Black Belgian Double IPA”. Pilsner malt, some Munich and Chocolate malt for color. Hops? Simcoe to bitter, Nelson and Sorachi Ace are the additions; hop back, as well as dry hop. After an hour, the spirits leave Scott and we embark on a super-VIP behind the scenes tour of this hollowed sacred craft beer ground.
The Tour – If you haven’t read Sierra Nevada’s sustainability report, let me break it down quickly. Every square inch of the brewery that can have solar panels HAS THEM. The parking lot is covered by TRACKING SOLAR PANELS. Every leftover scrap of food and hops IS COMPOSTED. The compost goes to grow organic veggies and HOPS in their huge garden. Spent grain is fed to ravenous COWS and PIGS in the area. Delivery trucks use homebrew BIODIESEL. They built a RAIL SPUR to have grain delivered as green as possible. Nothing is wasted. Everything that can be repurposed IS. Have you ever drank a Sierra Nevada Estate Ale? It’s not just a beer, it’s the culmination of everything Sierra Nevada stands for…and it’s BEAUTIFUL.Check it out, okay?
Highlights of the tour:
- Sampling fresh Torpedo from the fermentation tank. From now on, Torpedo will never live up that!
- Seeing the Barrel Aged Bigfoot bottling line being prepped. Cork and cage, haters! I really loved the behind the scenes tour.
- Tasting Barrel Aged Bigfoot in the quality lab from a beaker. I snuck an extra!
- Frolicking in the hop field. Even without vines, it’s pretty damn nifty. Next time I drink an Estate Ale, I will add “notes of blogger foot”.
- The bike! Twelve seats, two taps, three gears and a squeeze horn. I’m still giddy! Pretty much the Willy Wonka moment of the tour.
- The kegging/bottling/canning line! I felt like a kid watching 200 barrels of Torpedo getting packaged. Fire in the hole!
- The hop freezer! Being in a room full of200lb bales of hops is one of the best smells ever. Even better than Anne Hathaway, I’m sure.
- The brewhouse. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Sierra Nevada has two of the most beautiful copper brewhouses I’ve ever seen. The old one, dismantled in Germany and brought over is visible from the restaurant. The newer brewhouse was added mimicking the look of the original. Knowing the history behind them makes them even more impressive.
- Visiting the ‘Ovila’ Abbey. Twenty miles from Sierra Nevada Brewery, the Abbey is still being reconstructed. Watch a video about it here! If you ever visit SN, you must go here too! The wine they make is spectacular. (New Clairvaux Vinyards)
- Downtown Chico. I had some great times at Madison Bear Garden, Woodstocks Pizza and the Banshee. The kind folks at Sierra Nevada were super hospitable and a blast to hang out with! Thanks Hunter, Ryan, Terence, Justin, Steve, Ken, Scott, and my brothers of Beer Camp #94!
Part 2: the Brewday: