It's Harvest Time at the Sierra Nevada Brewery
Image via: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
The Sierra Nevada Brewery, started in 1980 is now the 6th largest brewery in the US. Sounds sort of corporate, right? You see them in plenty of bars and restaurants and probably figure that the beer is no different than any of the others, right? No offense to the guys at Sierra Nevada. Well, apparently they've been green since the get-go and are still committed to crafting a brew with more of a homebrew flavor. Last week I got an insider tour of the brew-making process and see where "bitter" gets its name from. Organic Beer
Here is something you might know: there are typically just four ingredients in beer — water, barley, hops and yeast. But here is something you might not know — since 90% of the ingredients in beer are water, which can't be certified organic, and since you need at least 70% of the ingredients in a product to be organic to get that label, then beer is technically never "organic." The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. does grow all of its grains as organic and is in the process of getting their grains certified organic, so, while they won't be officially "organic," the brew that hits your lips will be.
To do this and to promote organics in general, they are paying the other farms that grow their barley and wheat to plant organic fields. That way they get paid whether the fields work or not, and have a financial cushion to learn the organic trade. They grow 1% of their hops and barley right on their property to make a limited Estate Beer.
Walking through the rows of hops, you almost feel like you're on a different planet because these plants don't grow like traditional produce. Instead of say, strawberries, that grow out of the ground, the hops grow on 18' long vines that are attached to a structure. So walking through them, you see rows and rows of leafy, strings that are all uniform. It looks like some weird science experiment. Since they are organic, Sierra Nevada also planted marigolds and sunflowers around the plot to attract the mites that would otherwise eat the hops.
Organic hops at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Image via: Author's Collection.
The hops themselves, if you've never seen one, come in green buds that almost look like small flowers that have yet to open and bloom. They are moist and squishy, pretty much what you would expect. The part that you don't expect is the yellow flavoring on the interior called "lupulin" which is where the bitter for the beer comes from. The lupelin is the definition of bitter and when you first put a drop in your mouth, the tip of your tongue doesn't register. It's not until the flavor hits the back of your tongue and the back of your throat that you realize what true "bitter" tastes like. It's a really strange sensation and it was a little bit like having soap in the back of your throat and you can't keep from coughing and squeezing your tongue together to get the taste out of your mouth. There are actually 4 different varieties of hops in the field — Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and Citra — each used to bring out different aromas in the beer.
From the field, the hops are loaded on a truck and driven across the field to the milling machine. The hops are then loaded onto this old "widow-maker" that pulls each of the buds off of the plant. The machine itself was restored piece by piece from another mill. The crates of buds are stacked up and then taken right into the brewery where they are put directly into the next batch of brew.
Dried Hops at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Image via: Author's Collection.
Once I got the scent of the hops, I was hooked. While I wasn't too keen on the bitter flavor, the smell is just something I've never experienced before. Any time we went into another room, I could always pick out when the hops were in there. Hops in the cold room, hops about to be loaded in the mill and hops ready for brewing, didn't matter, that scent was the same. The hops that I saw harvested last week will be put into the brew the very next day. This year, Sierra Nevada is working on a new brew - their Estate Beer - which will feature hops and barley grown directly on site. It will be available early September in some markets.
Sierra Nevada Brewery
So enough about hops, what else is Sierra Nevada doing to go green? Well, the owner, Ken Grossman, who founded the brewery almost 30 years ago, has been tinkering with production throughout the process. Since he started the brewery as a microbrew in his garage, he has been intimately involved in every step. If there is a way to make something more efficient or turn an end product into something else, as I learned, they're already doing it.
The brewery itself is pretty impressive. All of the massive holding tanks on the top of each building, each of which holds 6800 gallons of beer. Plus, many of the machines in the shop were purchased from old breweries that went out of business. In fact, one machine is still written in German and workers had to translate all of the dials to be able to work it. The front of the building, you can see the large copper casks, each of which has a different function to heat up the brew and mix all of the ingredients in. No space was wasted as these are blended in with the offices and other shops open to the public. Over 700,000 barrels of beer are produced each year from this one little plant. So how does someone produce that much beer and still stay true to their beer? That was what I was here to find out.
First, throughout the brewing process, the grains and their hard shells are reused once, as filters for new beer while it is brewing. All of the spent grains that can no longer be used are sold to local ranchers for cattle feed, which is perfect since cattle are supposed to eat grains. Ranchers tend give their cattle brewers yeast tablets anyways, so having a little bit in the mix from the beer is actually okay. The brewery itself actually raises about 60 head of cattle on site as meat for the restaurant. It's also a bonus that they can then use the manure for their fields. The cattle are then fed the spent grains from the brewery and are managed by students from CSU Chico, who take care of the cattle and get school credit.
They also built their own water treatment plant themselves to clean and reuse all of the water that they don't use in the beer process. Lots of the water is used throughout the fields as drip irrigation and 95% of the bioload is taken out of the water before it's sent back into the municipal supply.
Running a brewery takes a lot of energy because there are machines running all the time. The kettles have to reach really high temperatures several times a day and that takes energy. Plus, the beer has to sit chilled for days at a time. In an area that regularly hits temperatures in the triple digits, it's hard to keep a building cool, much less chilling tanks that sit in direct sunlight. This is where the solar panels and fuel cells come in.
Solar panels cover every inch of roof space at Sierra Nevada. Image via: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Using these two technologies and by being very efficient (the bottling plant uses natural light all day long), they produce roughly 80-90% of their own power on site. Literally every building that can hold solar panels does, in order to account for the 1.9 MW system they have in place. They are neck and neck with Google in terms of who has the larger, privately-owned photovoltaic system in California. The solar panels are also used for their electric vehicle charging stations on site. They are looking into purchasing several electric vehicles to run at the brewery. Employees and patrons with electric vehicles that visit Sierra Nevada are allowed to charge their vehicles for free.
Image via: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
The fuel cells (4 of them at 300 Kw a piece) are perfect for powering the items that have to run 24 hours a day, and for ensuring that items that have to maintain a constant temperature can do so, because this is an on-demand, uninterrupted power supply. The steam and heat generated, at temperatures of roughly 1600 degrees F, are captured and used to heat the water boilers. In addition, there are heat exchangers on the tops of all the brew kettles to also capture the spent heat and put it back into use.
Image via: Author's Collection
Since rail travel is more efficient than flying or driving the brew, Ken found chilled semi-trailers that can be loaded on rail cars so that the beer can travel without skunking. Now, roughly 35% of their brew is shipped via rail — they even have their own rail spur. The trucks that do deliver beer locally in Chico are all partially powered by biodiesel.
Working with all of that glass, one would hope there is a plan in place, and there is, but not just for the glass. Over 99.5% of solid waste from the facility is diverted from landfills. Pallets are recycled. Kegs are recycled and when someone sends Sierra Nevada kegs for other breweries, those nice guys store them up until they have a pallet full and then send them to the correct place. The glass bottles that do break, are crushed and shipped directly back to the manufacturer, who turns them right back into Sierra Nevada bottles.
Biodiesel, created from the restaurant, (only about 50 gallons every other week) is used to power their tractors. They also have a hybrid electric diesel tractor — one of just a few hybrid tractors found in the United States. There is also a composter in town takes all of the scraps from the pub, though Sierra Nevada is looking to purchase a composter on site. . They are looking into getting a machine that will create E-100 from the spent yeast and then purchasing a few vehicles that can run on the pure ethanol.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is naturally generated during the fermentation process of beer making. So, the folks at Sierra Nevada wanted to do something about this. Their solution: capture it and reuse it. They created a giant "bladder" where CO2 from all over the facility is funneled into one location and stored. The CO2 is then used as pressure to push materials through the pipes around the facility.
What would a brewery be without a Pub and the one at Sierra Nevada is excellent. Obviously you can sample their different brews, but they also cook many of their dishes with organic and locally grown food. The oven for making the pizza is headed from almond wood that grows all over the area. When area farmers cut them down to plant new ones, the brewery takes the wood, which burns at a higher temperature, for use in the pub. Sierra Nevada gives their employees free money at the brewery for each year they've been there. The pub is open to the public and frequently has bands and other events. They also purchased several houses next to the property, which they have turned into free childcare and free health services. The third house they use for new employees to stay temporarily until they find a home in the area. There are also frequent massages for employees as well as social functions. Just this past May, they donated a quarter from every 12-pack sold to the Western Rivers Conservancy, a non-profit out of Portland, OR.
Now don't get me wrong, this is beer they're brewing, not trying to save the world, but in a way this little brewery is showing that you can have a successful business that still makes a beer that doesn't taste like water. They have plans to make a great beer but not any plans to take over the world. Cheers to that!