I recently drove 90 miles to Chico to take the public tour of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., hoping to get a sense of how a pioneering brewery that grew up and got huge could still be so true to its original mission.
I figured a tour of the facility would allow me to soak up the story, see the brewery up close, witness all those hallmark quality controls and, hey, try a few really good beers.
These free tours are offered daily, include several samples of beer and, over the course of an hour, summarize the tale of a once-fledgling beer company that opened in 1980 and emerged as the benchmark for quality craft beer.
To hear the Sierra Nevada story firsthand is to become a better-informed, more- devoted consumer and, no doubt, a lifelong admirer of the brand. No gimmicks here. No shortcuts. No fancy marketing tricks.
The tour starts with a taste of the brewery's flagship pale ale and takes you through the multistage, meticulous process of making great beer. As you walk through the brewery, you encounter scores of framed photos dating to the company's beginnings. There's also a large display case holding the collection of bottles and cans of every style and look Sierra Nevada has taken to market.
Midway through the tour, I got a taste of wort, the liquid used in the fermentation process that's derived from barley and hot water – it tastes sort of like sweet corn flakes cereal.
I stepped into the chilly hop room and smelled the array of aromas dancing in the air, doing a "dry rub" and inhaling deeply to appreciate just how distinct each hop variety is.
The tour ended with tastings of six or seven more beers, my senses enhanced by that visit to the hop room.
I highly recommend experiencing it for yourself.
Then there was my detour. Toward the end of my visit, I stepped away from my tour group to meet up with Sierra Nevada's famed brewmaster Steve Dresler, a laid-back guy with exacting standards and a magician's touch for brewing. We chatted about beer and styles and all the new breweries vying to make a mark.
But first we tasted.
Dresler led me down a hallway and we ducked into a chilly room, where he pulled out a special metal curly-cue device known in the trade as a "pigtail" tool. He inserted it into the sampling valve, or zwickel, on the large fermentation tank and proceeded to pour me a beer straight from the source.
This beer, a Belgian-style golden, was one in a series of coveted Ovila Abbey offerings brewed in collaboration with the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux a little to the north in Vina.
It was a truly beautiful beer – a golden-yellow liquid, chilled just so, complex and vivid in flavor and so wonderfully balanced. Standing there talking beer with a revered brewmaster and drinking a world-class beer produced for a very limited release – it doesn't get any better than that.
I went to Sierra Nevada because I figured there is much we can learn in Sacramento as craft breweries continue to flourish here. As a writer, I often think about something called "voice" – how a writer distinguishes him or herself from others with word selection, flow, pace, power and purpose.
Brewers, especially new ones, face the same question. What is the brewer's voice? How will it stand out?
"It's a good question," Dresler said, seated behind his desk in his surprisingly tiny office. "For us, it's a little bit easier because we have such a great history as a company.
"Everybody should be quality driven, so we're all elevating one another. Then you want to bring your own personality into what you make, and that's the difficult thing. There are so few niches left in beer. Now people are doing American interpretations of Belgian beers. I'm working on a Belgian black IPA (India pale ale). Now people are hybridizing, trying to get an expression into beers that a few years ago didn't exist from a stylistic standpoint."
Sierra Nevada's style – its voice – is so well known and distinct. Its original pale ale, first brewed in the early 1980s, helped set the stage for the current explosion of even hoppier – and bitter – IPAs.
"It's the No. 1 style in the country right now," Dresler said. "It's a reflection of people desiring more experience on their palates. When (Sierra co-founder) Ken (Grossman) created his pale ale, that was a very radical beer. Pale ales and hoppy beers have now been around for a while and people are wanting to push the envelope and raise the bar. How you blend your hops is what will differentiate you from everybody else."
We're already seeing that new and exciting expressiveness in and around Sacramento, with breweries such as Knee Deep in Lincoln doing big, bold things with its hoppy – and really hoppy – beer styles.
As the craft beer movement here continues to grow, we'll likely continue to see Sierra Nevada as the gold standard for a company that got big but didn't lose its way.
And to appreciate that best, taking the public tour is the way to go. Start at www.sierranevada.com.
Brew comin' up
Next here: We'll crank up the IBUs and taste a slew of IPAs and double-IPAs brewed locally and beyond.
The seventh annual Raley Field Brewfest is 7-10 p.m. June 7. You can still get tickets. Sixty-plus beer vendors, live music. $30 in advance, $35 at the gate.
June 29, 6-9 p.m., is the Bell Tower Brewfest in Placerville: 35 craft brews, live music. Tickets are $30. http://www.placerville-downtown.org or (530) 672-3436.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.