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
Sierra 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.
“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.
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.
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)
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!
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!
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!
- 2/21 at Out of the Park Pizza in Anaheim Hills
- 2/26 at The Playground in Downtown Santa Ana
- There are releases in San Diego and LA as well. If you are interested, leave a message below or on Twitter.
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.