The Birth of a Beer

Stoudt's Brewing founder Carol Stoudt and Jason Oliver of Devils Backbone brew a Beer Camp test batch. Credit: Courtesy Sierra Nevada Brewing

Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp Across America launched in 2014 with a 12-pack of beer collaborations and a cross-country bus tour that required at least a year of recovery for all involved. In 2016, the California-born brewery relaunched Beer Camp, sans bus, inviting 30 craft brewers from Hawaii to Massachusetts to create the most epic six-pack of the year (now for sale, for a limited time; get it, seriously).

We were lucky enough to go behind the scenes and follow the nine-month collaboration process, from beer-fueled brainstorms to the hop-filled finish. The 30 brewers split into six teams (one for each beer), and we tagged along with the Northeast region — helmed by Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione — to find out how a one-of-a-kind beer comes together.

Step 1: Beer-Fueled Brainstorm

On September 14, 2015, the 30 breweries assembled at Sierra Nevada's Mills River, North Carolina, brewery. Sierra Nevada had picked six team captains and then left it to them to fill their rosters of collaborators — which ranged from legendary veterans to relatively new brewers so honored to have a seat at the table (a tear or two was shed during introductions).

Calagione picked his crew during a particularly reflective paddleboard session. "First, I wanted someone I thought never got enough credit as a craft trailblazer," he says. For that he called Carol Stoudt, founder of Stoudts Brewing, which has made bright, stunning German lagers without fuss or excessive fanfare since 1986.

After Stoudt, he looked north to a pair of the most cutting-edge operations in the country, Lawson's Finest Liquids and Trillium Brewing, both known for their ridiculously hoppy ales. And then to balance the crew, Calagione reached out to Virginia's Devils Backbone, a small operation with a slew of Great American Beer Fest medals.

Like the other regions, the brewers knew they wanted to represent their turf. Sitting around a patio table in Mills River, Calagione's group quickly tapped into its status covering America's original 13 colonies, and chose to brew what they call a "neo-colonial ale," a brew featuring ingredients and inspiration from the 18th century, with the benefits of modern brewing.

They rattled off options: open fermentation, honey, a new world lager, ingredients from every state. But there's no order until Sean Lawson speaks up, "What can we lend to the beer without making it a hodgepodge? For me, it's a hop character that shines through. If you lend your signature to a beer, what is it?"

"I'd like a blend of old and new hops," offers Jason Oliver of Devils Backbone. Now Cluster, the oldest variety of farmed American hops, are penciled in for bittering.

"Then let's also go to the absolutely newest hops, too," replies Sam.

The beer starts to come into focus now. In addition to the new and old hops, apple cider and rye, two beer-friend staples of the era join the rough recipe. 

"We just want it hazy, that's our contribution," jokes Trillium's JC Tetreault, before recommending a local maltster he uses with an old Polish rye called Danko. "It's twice the normal price. Is that a problem?” It's not.

As the brewers start building a hoppy beer with a cider component, more potential ingredients drop out. Brown and smoked malts, a common ingredient centuries ago are axed for potentially overpowering the apple character. 

The biggest struggle: naming the beer. Calagione, who's keeping a running list of potential beer names on his phone, leads the brainstorm by standing up and proclaiming, "I need another beer to keep the creative juices flowing." Five minutes later he returns with a server carrying a tray of eight Sierra Nevada Pale Ales.

After tossing names back and forth, there are a few promising suggestions. Scott Jennings throws out 13 O.G., for the 13 colonies, and O.G. being a brewing measurement — in addition to O.G., Sean Lawson counters with the Rye That Bines, referencing the bines (not vines) that hops grow on. Meanwhile, Sam googles each name to see if the trademark is taken. "Redhook has Live Free or Rye. Oh, we don't want that," he jokes. "They have lawyer money." (Redhook is partially owned by Anheuser-Busch Inbev, the world's largest brewer.)

As good ideas run out, Sierra Nevada brewer Scott Jennings, the man making sure the beer can be made, steers the conversation back to nuts and bolts, specifically, the bitterness units.

"In the 40s, but go big, go silly on the aroma," says Lawson, putting the bitterness slightly higher than Sierra Nevada's flagship pale ale. 

"How about 46?" says Calagione, his mind still on the naming and offering ideas faster (and he is fast) than he can count. "That's 13 times 2!"

Smiling, Lawson continues, "I like 39, but big on aroma. Let's do bittering hops, hop back, and torpedo [Sierra Nevada's proprietary dry-hopping device], but no mid-boil, I don't see the need."

Calagione's pale ales continue disappearing, and the group agrees on the hopping strategy, then Brian Grossman, son of founder Ken Grossman and manager of the Mills River brewery, appears to ask the innocent question, "So what are you guys brewing?" Without missing a beat, Calagione replies that they're making a hop-forward ale accentuated by cider and rye. The basics are set.

Step 2: The Test Batch

The rest of the details roll in later in the day and over follow-up emails and conference calls. Cider will be shipped in from Vermont and Delaware, via a press in Pennsylvania. Crystal malt from Virginia will add color. And Jennings found a hop variety so new, it lacks a proper name, going now by FZMR2. "It stands for Frank Zappa Neo-Mexicanus Rio-2," wrote Jennings. "Really, no shit."

The hop, which has never seen a commercial beer before, was a wild variety growing in New Mexico's Rio Grande Valley. One of Sierra Nevada's hop farmers began cultivating the breed in Washington's Yakima Valley — the beer world's Napa. While the exact music connection is unclear, the Zappa hop offers a unique character of peppery citrus and melon, and Jennings ordered the modest 600-pound harvest in whole.

Jennings also offers up lupulin powder, which piques the interest of IPA devotees Sean Lawson and JC Tetreault. For nearly every brew, Sierra Nevada proudly uses nothing but whole-cone hop flowers, instead of the more popular and efficient pelletized hops. The brewery believes the hops' lupulin glands, the little yellow sacks holding aromatic oils, are better preserved in whole cones. The powder, which isn't used in flagship Sierra Nevada beers, is only those preserved glands, separated from the hop flower at freezing temperatures. In effect, it provides the richer hop aroma of whole cone hops, but without the green leaves that can impart vegetable flavors in heavily hopped brews.

A month after first meeting, the group reconvenes in Roseland, Virginia, to brew the first pilot batch at Oliver's Devils Backbone. While cider is shipped in, Jennings drives up a car loaded with coolers of experimental hops from Mills River, and JC Tetreault flies down with 40 pounds of the Danko rye in tow — one hell of a carry-on.

On brew day, excitement gets the best of the crew, and a generous hand with hops more than doubles the targeted bitterness. The pilot batch also ferments farther than intended, but both issues can be easily adjusted in the second pilot batch at Sierra Nevada in November. Overall, the beer is a success. The rye and cider proportions let each ingredient shape the brew without dominating or disappearing. More impressively, the Zappa hops shine through over the other experimental varieties.

On the follow-up call to share tasting notes and ideas, the team spends roughly 10 minutes going over the beer and recipe — they like it but all agree it's too dry and bitter. Twenty-five minutes are spent on naming. Apple of My Rye is initially popular, but there are worries it could be mistaken for a fruit beer.

"You know how these beer geeks are," Carol Stoudt says of the hardcore beer enthusiast's disdain for fruit beer. "And we're not doing an apple beer." There's still no decision, but the group has steered into the colonial theme with Rye for Freedom, Freedonia, and Pat-Rye-Ot as leading contenders.

Step 3: Fine-Tuning 

When the group assembles for the second pilot batch at Mills River, the first order of business is finalizing the aroma hops. Standing in the brewery's cold room for hops (the freezing temps slow oxidation), everyone begins rubbing and smelling handfuls of roughly a dozen hops Jennings has laid out for their consideration. The Zappa hop and Equinox, a lemony, tropical-fruit-like variety that's only had a name for two years, are clear favorites. The brewers rub a base of one on their hand, covering their hands in the sticky yellow lupulin powder, then add a second layer of Centennial or another experimental hop to simulate how the varieties will work together in the aroma.

After wrapping up the pilot batch, the team closes the day with public meet-and-greet-and-drink at Asheville's Tasty Beverage bottle shop and a barbecue dinner around the corner. Now two months into the Beer Camp, and with the recipe nearly set, the group gets reflective over plates of pulled pork and hush puppies.

Carol Stoudt in particular feels energized by the experience. Her Stoudts Brewing nails pale ales, stouts, abbey beers, and lagers, but rarely paints outside stylistic lines. "I'm going to do a rhubarb beer, and a beer with pear." Her only potential hurdle is getting her brew team to deviate from traditional styles and tackle the hassle of fruit. With a big grin, Calagione offers a name for the rhubarb beer: "Fuck You, Whose Name Is On the Label?" in a not so subtle reminder of who runs the brewery.

When the pilot batch finishes fermentation in December, the beer appears to be nearly ready to go full scale. (And pressed by the marketing team to finally pick a name, they land on Pat-Rye-Ot.) The bitterness is still too high in the second test brew, around 65 IBUs (International Bittering Units), but the Zappa and Equinox hops are working in harmony with the rye and cider. From here, the beer is in Jennings' hands to scale up from the last 20-barrel batch to a total of roughly 1,700 barrels — about 54,000 gallons, or 580,000 bottles of beer. Aside from dialing back the bittering Cluster hops, his big concerns are getting the Danko rye and crystal malt in, and making sure the cider arrives on time and without preservatives.

Brewing in March goes off with just one small hitch. Initially the crew had hoped to add the cider after the boil and initial fermentation to capture more apple character (sort of like dry-hopping). But the freshly crushed juice arrives at Mills River showing signs that it's fermenting on its own with wild yeast. Jennings adds the cider to the end of the boil to kill any bacteria that could spoil the batch. By April the beer is ready to bottle.

Step 4: Bottle and Pour

The final painstaking step in getting Beer Camp bottles out to stores is the repack. A similar shipment of a batch of pale ale would take two days from bottling to shipping pallet, says Jennings, but Beer Camp is different. The two Sierra Nevada breweries, Mills River and the original in Chico, brewed three of the six beers and packaged them in the variety cases — each case has 12 of the same beer. Now they have to ship roughly half of those to the other brewery to begin repacking each 12-pack with two of each beer. At the North Carolina brewery, it takes nine days with 22 additional staff working 10-hour shifts, says Jennings.

Soon the beer will hit taps and coolers, but the last leg of Beer Camp Across America is the six giant festivals in each region this June. All the Beer Camp collaborators are invited to pour at the festival, naturally, but Sierra Nevada also put out an open call to every craft brewer in America to attend. So far, more than 800 brewers have signed up to pour their beers — that's 1 in every 5 American craft breweries.

For all their effort and months of work, the Pat-Rye-Ot will be served amid a massive sea of their peers, celebrated until those 580,000 beers run out (probably by the end of summer), and then likely never brewed again. But that long-term futility is what makes Beer Camp a celebration. The best brewers in America are giving up their time and creativity for a beer that lauds the innovation of their world. They're presenting the best beer they can possibly make, then walking away because, as they're proving, American craft beer can just make another amazing beer unlike anything you've tried next year.