Just a Fella That Builds Breweries: Jim Mellem of The Bruery

Piece originally appeared in the Sept. 2015 BeerPaperLA.

Ten weeks ago, Jim Mellem walked through The Bruery’s doors. A/C blowing his almost Lyle Lovett-like hair to the side, he punched the clock on a new job with a million things to do. Ten weeks later, the old brewhouse is out, a shiny-new GEA system is installed, and the Bruery Terreux sits a pellicle away from going full force. Leaving a 12-year position at one of America’s most-respected breweries to work in Orange County couldn’t have been easy. I got a chance to check in with him late August and chat about his transition.


Sharing Black Tuesday 2015 out of the brite tank, Jim Mellem

Everyone always remembers their first Bruery beer, what was yours? Tradewinds Tripel. Beautiful beer.

How different are things at The Bruery compared to Sierra Nevada?

The resources here are a little bit different, in a lot of ways it’s a lot more fun. We get to roll up our sleeves. Patrick is really big on the people aspect of brewing, which is nice.  It’s a lot more manual at the Bruery. One similarity is the pilot system at Sierra Nevada is similar to our production brewhouse. At Sierra, it’s more for fun, over here, it’s what pays the bills.

How much are you going to miss dry hopping?

I was in charge of the cellar in Chico and that was like 60% of my job! I’d be organizing torpedos, dry hops, and managing the guys. I can safely move on from brewing IPA’s in my life. I love drinking them though. Now I’m getting more into ‘what kind of spices can we add to the whirlpool’. With our recent collab with Jester King, I had to organize the guys to get zest off of 400 pounds of limes; every week is something totally different.

With the unique operational requirements behind some of The Bruery’s beers, are there any techniques you’ve changed or plan on changing?

With Autumn Maple, we’ve moved to yam purée instead of hand processing them. We also bought a pump to add them directly into the kettle (ed: they previously used a forklift).  Anyway, it’s a lot easier than hand-roasting yams.  We still split vanilla beans individually and have to get the ingredients sack together for whirlpool, so it’s still a major operation in some respects.

You mentioned you came from the cellar side of things at Sierra Nevada, is there any knowledge to impart coming from years of bottle/can conditioning Pale Ale and other beers?

Sierra is probably one of the few breweries in the world that has the ability to take beer that’s 32 degrees and warm it back up to 60 at packaging/filtration. At Terreux, we’re pushing everything to be bottle conditioned as we find that it adds that je ne sais quoi. Right now, we take the bottles and stick them in a warm warehouse for a month plus, but if you can give that a bit of a jump start by getting the beer warm, then bottling, we’d be ahead of the game.  The question is how can we do that from an energy standpoint, using existing equipment and not trying to sink the Bismarck in cost.

Maybe convert the Jazzersize building a few doors down into a Bikram Yoga/Bottle Conditioning room?

I definitely have some cool ideas…it’s really interesting at Sierra though, as we will bottle condition with house yeast, with Cal Ale yeast, and we’d also do it with Brett. So there’s a lot more variation on bottle conditioning speed, what types of esters you’re producing, and what you’re trying to get in the bottle. It might be something that will help mop up the rougher flavors after barrel aging, diacetyl, making sure you’re getting a really great product out to the consumer, so we’re definitely trying to employ some of these options. Terreux is still very much a work in progress, in regards to how we’re going to finish those beers.

Sierra Nevada is built with efficiency and environment in mind. Will you be looking into any projects to do the same at the Bruery?

I think it’s a greater awareness, but the new brewhouse offers some benefit. The mash tun has rakes now, so we can get more water out which means we’re sparging less and using less water per barrel. We want to have a knowledge of how to count and quantify things first, then we can figure out how to improve. We’ve reset the bar with the new brewhouse. We’ll have to get smarter with transporting wort between buildings. We’ve also done some things different how we clean the bottle filler to save water. We’re doing a lot of risky beers here, and with that, there’s always going to be a lot more water use because you’re always going to have to clean, then clean again, and again.

Is manpower shared between Terreux and Bruery?

It’s really interesting. There’s two different teams within the different wort stream. Myself and Andrew Bell are the only two guys that bounce back and forth between locations. We do have pilot fermenters over there, so we’ll funk stuff up and see how it goes. It’s cool that it gives people more ownership of the projects.

The split brewhouse with The Bruery and Terreux was meant to primarily address quality concerns, is there anything else The Bruery is doing to enhance beer quality?

We have a nice quality department here. For a brewery of this size to have three people that are 100% devoted to quality is pretty damned good. Not too many breweries of this size can say that. Our next frontier will be dialing in package quality.

Were you ever part of the Ovila Belgian-style beers Sierra Nevada brewed, and if so, did it drive some of your interest down here?

It’s weird, when I interviewed, I asked, “you’re a Belgian-style brewery right?”, and they were like…nah, no not really…we sort of identify with that; but we more identify with the individuality of that. That’s ultimately what drove me to be here. I worked on the first five Ovilas; that was cool because we got to figure out what yeast strains to use and how to bottle condition. It was still very experimental at such a large phase. I think what really drove me here was that I have always been a fan of The Bruery’s beers, and being impressed that something this small can produce beers this high in quality, keep it interesting and keep it exciting. They take huge risks, which I kind of like.

Do you appreciate any other local breweries?

I go to Noble Ale Works a lot. I describe them more as my neighborhood pub. You look at the stuff they’re doing with hops with the single hop variety beers. It’s great! I can go there and get an idea of what 100% Mosaic tastes like. I’m like, thanks man, I appreciate that.

SN does two beers in open fermenters: Kellerweiss and Bigfoot. Would you ever try to convince Patrick to install something like that?

The cool thing about this place is nothing is off the table. If you look at the beers they’ve made over the years, truly nothing is off the table. We’re looking at a 2017 expansion project. I know with Wicked Weed, they’ve installed a nice 30 or 60 barrel open fermenter. The bigger question is ‘what are you getting off of it?’ You’re getting a nice non-pressurized fermentation. For the Kellerweiss yeast, I can definitely say it does make a difference. For Bigfoot, do you really pick up that up in the ester profile?  Maybe not so much. As long as I don’t have to clean it, I’d be happy installing one. I actually twisted my knee getting in and out of one, so my days getting in and out of open fermenters might be a job for the younger guys.

How is Orange County treating you thus far?

I still get lost going to the grocery store! Haha! I’m still GPS dependent getting around here.

Chico’s beer scene is run by Sierra Nevada. Asheville not so much. What was it like for SN to move into a thriving beer community?

It’s really weird, one gripe about Chico was trying to hire people, there’s no big beer culture there. Living in Asheville was that we have people making different beers down the road and so we’d be able to try new beers and be able to chat with the brewers, asking how they made it, then we’d get ideas of our own, and it would foster and grow.  And for me, seeing what Wicked Weed was doing, I was like, why don’t I go work for a brewery that does this? The cool thing is about those guys is, people see what they’re doing and think, “I should be raising the bar too.” There’s this step-ladder affect.


Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Day 2: Electric Boogaloo (Brewday!)


Read about day 1 here.

Thursday 7:55 A.M.– Few experiences rate up there with brewing at Sierra Nevada; getting married, nookie experience number one, or even squirting out a honey boo boo or two. The crusty-eyed beer campers and I march to the pilot brewery, lips zipped and eyebrows clenched. Picture the movie Reservoir Dogs slow-mo walking scene and you’ve got it. Serious shit is to be had today, and we know it. Life changing romantic shit, and we fucking love it. The halls of Sierra Nevada are lined with photos of greatness. The arousing wisp of beer being brewed makes me nervous, excited, and have to pee really bad.

hairway to stephenscott jennings leads the group brew seshSierra Nevada’s pilot brewery sits in mid-campus thirty spiral steps up. Out of breath, clammy, and still Chico-buzzed from shenanigans six hours prior, the brewhouse greets us like an old friend. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this steel diamond-plated pimped out  penthouse brewhouse brings this game to a whole new level. Five brewing vessels sit before us like ripe carrots poking out of the ground: two brew kettles, mash tun, lauter and a whirlpool. Hot to the touch with steam pouring out, I secretly dry hump the mash tun without anyone looking. With her hatch open, I inhale deeply taking in a fog bank of misty cereal-like essence. During batch 1’s sparge, freshly pitched chocolate malt blots dark hues like an angry octopus.

dough in, or anal probe? the bag hides my fear-boner

“Let’s mill our specialty grains and pick out the hops” says Scott Jennings, Sierra Nevada’s (North Carolina) head brewer. For reference, a typical five gallon homebrew batch would need around fifteen pounds of malted barley to get a ~7% beer. Today, all twelve of us proudly hoists a 40lb sack into the mill for a photo op. Muscles flexing, safety goggles gleaming, cameras snappin; the sacks are no sweat except for the one. Willis, a fuzzy fro-headed musician from Chico misses the mark and dumps the grain on the ground. “Beer name! Let’s call it “Pull a Willis” says one camper. “How about “Free Willis?” A vacuum slurps them into an enormous mill, sprays them, and sends them straight to the mash tun. While the grains rest at 152F, we head to the hop room.

sleight of hand's hop load hopfingers aka pixie dust

Sierra Nevada’s hop room smells better than a room full of cold-hard cash. 200 pound bales of whole cone hops are stacked around like a padded room in an insane asylum. Sierra Nevada uses 100% whole cone hops, something I wasn’t aware of. Hop schedule in hand, Scott gives us each orders and I’m in charge of two pounds of Sorachi Ace.  Clawing at the huge bricks of hops with my hands, a sticky green dust coats my fingers like I finger-banged Tinker Bell. Other campers frolic in the hops like kids in the snow. Dropping to the ground and making hop angels is not out of the question. At beer camp, anything is possible.

the hopback (not torpedo) our belgian yeast in the propagator drooling krauzen blowoffTorpedo flowing

Mash complete on batch two, we watch the sparge happen with a push of a button. Aside from hop additions and grain milling, everything is highly automated allowing brewers to focus on quality, repeatability, and creativity. I had visions of sweating my ass off at grain-out. The actual hardest part of beer camp is picking the name for the beer, which we still have no solid ideas.

During camp, most beer names are derived from something funny that happened, an inside joke, or something obscure that fits that style. “How about Black Tricycle?” referring to our night out at the Bear in Chico. The bar has timed tricycle races in the middle of the place. Broken handlebars, hitting people, followed by chugging a nasty beer at the end; I wish I went to Chico State for college. Another name, Menage a Noir,makes the circles but doesn’t really catch. Katabasis? Nah. Black Tabby? Nope. Dubbel Double DIPA? Naming a home-brew is one thing, but a beer that has the possibility of being distributed nationally has bigger implications. (Update…IT IS!!! Look for it in August 2013)

nailed the sensory analysis i'm in ur base baggin ur hops

Our second night out with the hospitable Sierra Nevada team, one of the campers, the 6’10” pony-tailed ren-fairrish Michael Lipton pulls out a deck of cards to do some tricks. “Of course he knows magic tricks.” I think to myself. The trick is actually impressive. He repeats it over and over over pizza and Celebration at Woodstocks. Steve Grossman suggests, “what about Sleight of Hand?”. It actually works. Style wise, a black Belgian double IPA is something I’ve never heard of. Our goal as a team was to create something unique with this rare opportunity…mission accomplished!

biodiesel powers trucks compost inlet

Beer camp #94 is officially closed. Downtown Chico treats us like kings on the last night. We hit the Banshee, Raw Bar, and a few other spots before calling it a night. I’m smitten! I always knew Sierra Nevada is environmentally conscious, but now I know the heart and soul that drives it. The brewery is a living, breathing model of how any business should run. As they expand operations with a new brewery in North Carolina, I can’t wait to visit and perhaps, dry hump a warm mash tun as well over there!

Reservoir Dogs hop heist complete! No one got shot or lost an ear!

Reservoir Dogs hop heist complete! No one got shot or lost an ear!

Release parties! OC will have two Sleight of Hand release parties at 6pm! Please RSVP so we can get an idea how many are coming!

Edit! Here’s some SD and LA tappings:

  • San Diego:  Feb 24 at Churchills: and one at KnB Wine Cellars on either 3/2 or 3/22…I’m confirming. L
  • LA: Blue Palms on 2/22; Tony’s Darts Away on 2/23, and maybe two more.

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, Greetings from Camp…Sierra Nevada! Beer is good here…

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.

Steve Grossman pics us up from the airport.

Steve Grossman pics us up from the airport.

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.


Ken and Steve Grossman of Sierra Nevada welcome us to the brewhouse.

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.)

IMG_0147The “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.


Terence Sullivan of Sierra Nevada knows every minor detail of the brewery and guides us through most of Day 1.

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:

  • 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 boyz in the hood are always hard, come talkin that trash and we’ll pull your card. Knowin’ nothin’ in life but to be legit. Don’t quote me boy I ain’t said shit.

  • 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)


    Two beers you can only get at Sierra Nevada: Visions of Sugar Plums (Quad with Abbey plums) and Ovila Dubbel aged in wine barrels. Photo taken in the actual Abbey!

  • 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: