The Genius Behind Sierra Nevada Throws the Summer's Biggest Beer Party

To celebrate the opening of the company's new brewing facility in North Carolina, Sierra Nevada has invited every craft brewer in the U.S. to one of seven regional beer festivals hosted this summer. They're calling it Beer Camp Across America and Men's Journal will be reporting from each festival – and sampling an incredible diversity of beer – in Chico and San Diego, California, Denver; Chicago; Portland; Maine; Philadelphia; and finally Mills River, North Carolina. We talked to founder and CEO Ken Grossman, one of the longest-running and most influential craft brewers in the nation about the trip, Sierra Nevada's expansion, what it means to be a family business, and why the biggest brewers have been unsuccessful in selling craft knock-offs.

Did you really invite every brewer in the nation? How many is that?
Every single one of them that we could find, so something like 2,800.

What led to you throw a huge, logistically-fraught festival?
We wanted to figure out a fun way to celebrate the opening of our North Carolina brewery. So we thought, let's do a pilgrimage. We had a bunch of crazy ideas, like I was going to ride my bicycle from Chico to Mills River carrying the yeast to start brewing – like the Olympic torch. We talked about doing a combination of hot air ballooning, river rafting, biking, and kayaking to get across country. Then we came up with the idea to just celebrate beer and the craft brewing industry and we thought, let's just invite everybody and set up some places around the country to do beer festivals and invite all the brewers that are in that geography to come and celebrate with us. That's where we ended.

New Belgium Brewing (out of Colorado) is about to open a new facility in the Asheville region, as did Oskar Blues Brewery. Now you. Why is it so great for craft brewers?
The Asheville area in particular has been developing into a vibrant beer area on the southeast for a number of years. There's now close to 20 breweries in the area. It's got a great food culture, great outdoors, it's a very pretty area, and it's got great water. When we first started doing our search for an eastern location, we came up with a whole bunch of metrics and it had to do with things such as water and sewage and power and about the land and road and rail infrastructure and we ended up with nine states. Our folks went out visiting a lot of these areas, I went on a road trip a few times, took my son and then ended up taking my wife and kids. We found great sights and talking with some of the people who were going to be moving out there – my son being one of them. We had to be cognizant of the fact that in order to attract and retain and to certainly get to buy in for people to move to those new locations, it had to be something that the community had a lot to offer. So Asheville area seemed to fit that all pretty well.

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Beer Camp Across America isn't just about the event: You are making a first-of-its-kind 12-pack with 12-plus brewers collaborating on it. Tell me about that.
We collaborate with each brewery on one beer (this includes Cigar City Brewing, Ninkasi Brewing, Oskar Blues Brewery, 3 Floyds Brewing, Ballast Point Brewing, New Glarus Brewing, Allagash, Russian River Brewing, Bell's Brewing, Victory Brewing, and Firestone Walker), and then the Ashville Brewers Guild, which sort of represent all the local brewers. They used local sweet potatoes in the beer and all the brewers roasted them or cooked them some how and supplied them for part of the brew.

How hard was this to pull together?
It's been amazingly difficult. It's really taxed everybody at a pretty high level at the organization. Logistically, I wouldn't say a nightmare, but it's been really hard developing 12 recipes, working with 12 brewers, different artwork. We brewed them in both locations –  in North Carolina and in Chico, California. Then we're shipping some of the beer east and some of the beer west to then be hand-re-packed into this 12-pack with 12 beers.

Of the roughly 2,800 craft brewers in the nation, how many have you sampled?
When I first started in the early '80s, I knew every single brewer in the country by first name and we picked the phone up and talked to each other on a regular basis. Today, with 40 new breweries opening every month, there's just no way. I mean there were only like 45 breweries in the whole country back when I started. That included Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and all the big guys. At this point, I have no idea how many beers I've tried. I do certainly drink beers when I'm traveling and try all the locals. I'm sure I've drank many hundreds of different beers.

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Your son now works in North Carolina facility. How does having a family business impact the company? What's the family dynamic?
Two of my three children are involved in the business. My daughter, Sierra, is here in Chico and my son Brian's out in North Carolina. For the past couple of years, I've spend every other week in North Carolina. So it keeps me connected to the kids. We've got family dynamics, like every family has so, you know, we don't always see eye to eye on everything. But we don't have that kind of rebellion happening in our family.

Do you think that we'll see more craft brewers turning to family operations because many are so small?
Lots of them are. As the founders mature and want to slow down and want to look at some exit planning and successful planning. You know, Jack Joyce [the founder of Rogue Ales] just passed away this week from Oregon, his son, Brett had stepped up to CEO a number of years ago. So there's plenty of them out there and in the next 5, 10 years there will probably be more of the next generation getting involved.

Sierra Nevada is known for making hoppy beers an American signature. We noticed that you recently discontinued the Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale, one of your less hoppy beers. Why?
First of all, we're probably going to do something with that beer in some variety packs. But [pulling it out of the lineup] is just part of the place where craft has evolved right now. We were one of the very early hoppy beer brewers back in 1980. The styles of beers back then were pretty much all the same, you know: logger, light, very light lager styles. And when we came out with our pale ale, it was sort of a shocker for people's palates. Today, our pale ale is on the lower end of IPA/Pale Ale kind of bitterness range and people are appreciating and really enjoying hop-forward beers. Maltier beers right now are less in favor with a lot of the young craft drinkers and IPA's are still all the rage. Will it always be that way? It's hard to say. The consumer's kind of driving the boat right now.

There's more money than ever in craft brewing – Sam Adams, for one, is now a billion dollar company. Does this make for more competition or, like the Beer Camp trailer you all put out (below), is craft brewing really one big happy family?
You know, the brewing industry has always been pretty competitive and challenging. Right now craft is in a pretty heady place as an industry; it's really where the growth is in beer. That tends to bring a lot of people into the industry so there's hundreds and hundreds of people now who would love to call themselves brewers and want to open breweries, and there's a lot of fighting over shelf space and over tap handles and all those kinds of things. On the other hand, brewers in our segment tend to be fun and friendly and love their craft and we tend to get along with most everyone and so there's also that camaraderie and friendship and the rising tide of boats. I think it's healthier than if we become like some of the big brewers have over the years – you know, arch rivals and enemies and doing battle in the streets over tap handles. That tends to hurt everybody and I think the consumer doesn't like that. I think the average beer drinker would rather have their brewer that they want to support be a nice, friendly guy, who has valued the line with them, rather than being a cut-throat asshole who's only concerned about the bottom line.

Is theft of recipes a problem in the marketplace?
There's been a lot of that actually. It's happened over the years, pretty much from the biggest brewers – they have had knock-off products and some of them really, really close to some of the craft beers over the years. They haven't been very successful with them but it certainly has been part of their market strategy to try to be competitive in our segment.

Well, we look forward to coming to Beer Camp this summer to see all the innovators.
It should be a blast and I really hope people will come to party with us at the beer festivals. We should have a fun time doing this across the country and I'm looking forward to the trip. I'll be ready.