“Fuck Bad Beer” Sierra Nevada’s Brian Grossman is Bat Shit Passionate
“We’re bat shit passionate. I mean, you talk about sustainability, you talk about our beer quality, you talk about our family history. It’s all of that. You can’t just sum it up in passion because that has, you know, 50 shades of gray type of a feel to it. But, if you say ‘We’re bat shit passionate,” it’s like, ‘Okay!’ That’s what it is,” said Brian Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing.
The maturation of the craft-beer industry includes a changing of the guard, but for Sierra Nevada that transition will remain in the family. Formed in 1979 by Ken Grossman, his son Brian now serves as co-owner and serves as the GM of the brewery’s Mills River, North Carolina, location. We sat down to talk to Brian and find out what makes Sierra Nevada tick.
Bat Shit Passion & Loyalty
Brian personifies bat shit passion. He exudes passion for his wife and children, his dad, Star Wars, Scotch whisky, his North Carolina home, the environment, marketing, the craft-beer industry and, of course, Sierra Nevada Brewing. How did he come to the decision to follow in the footsteps of his dad?
“You don’t; you don’t decide that. It’s just something that’s there, or it’s not and it is for me.”
“Before I married my wife, my mom talked to her and had a very clear conversation of like, ‘Now, you do realize what you’re marrying. Not who, but what you’re marrying?’ Growing up with the brewery, it felt like [Sierra Nevada] was like a sibling. I’ve got two sisters, the brewery and me.” His wife understood, but Brian explained that his wife used a different analogy. According to Brian, she says, ‘Okay, you get one mistress in your life, and you already picked yours.'”
As Brian matured, his relationship with the brewery evolved. “As you grow up and get more involved, and you get more responsibilities…(sighs)…all of a sudden, it was really weird, but [Sierra Nevada] went from a sibling to a child of mine. We have almost 1,200 people that we work with every day and those 1,200 people are dependent upon not just great beer, but sound business decisions.” He added, “My obligation number one first and foremost, is to them, even before the drinker, which is a weird thing to say because the team won’t survive without the drinker. But, part of being bat shit passionate is, well, being bat shit loyal!”
“And then the next obligation is obviously to the drinker, and the relationship with the drinker is just like it’s been a relationship with the brewery that’s ever evolving.”
The Evolution of Sierra Nevada
Hearing a phrase like “bat shit passion” might lead one to think Sierra could be passionate to a fault and too stubborn to acclimate to the changing craft-brewing environment. However, while Brian understands his company, and the industry’s history exceptionally well, he also recognizes the fluidity of the current marketplace. Hence, Brian enjoys tremendous freedom in helping Sierra adapt, grow and remain one of the most influential breweries in the craft-brewing world.
Brian commented, “Yeah, things are certainly different. There’s the evolution of [Ken Grossman]; the evolution of the drinker; the evolution of the brewery; the evolution of the growing world.”
“There’s no day like today; yesterday’s not like today ever.”
He added, “You know we went national in the early 90’s because we had to. We had to put our beer in all 50 states because there was much less of a percentage of people out there that would drink.” We didn’t build Sierra with some type of empire in mind. It was built out of, ‘Well, shit. There are two people that’ll drink beer here, and there are four people that drink beer over there.”
But that was then. This is now. Today, craft-beer drinkers are everywhere, but the character of the drinker has changed dramatically.
Embracing Rotation Nation
Brian espoused about the character of today’s beer drinker. He said, “[Today’s] drinker is deep and wide. With rotation nation — you know the on-premise tap rotation that we’re talking about — you don’t go to market like you did yesterday. Yesterday, you went on premise, You built your sales on premise, and then you grow, grow, grow and eventually you went off-premise, and so you’ve built your brand. Today you sell a keg here, a keg there.”
Um, maybe five, five years ago or maybe a little longer, I’m in the Map Room here in Chicago, and I ordered a beer, and a gentleman walked in and sat down. He and the bartender talked — you could tell they knew each other. The bartender went through choices X, Y and Z, and the gentlemen said, ‘Oh, I wanted to try this beer’ and I said that I wanted to try it as well. So, the gentleman drank the beer and I asked him, ‘What do you think of this thing?’ He said, ‘It’s amazing.’
But, when the bartender returned, the gentleman asked for a different beer instead of ordering a second of the one he had just enjoyed. Brian proceeded to ask the gentleman about the second beer.
He said, ‘It’s really awful.’ So, I said, ‘When we talked before, you said it was one of the best beers you’ve ever had in your life. So, why didn’t you order a second one?’ He responded, ‘I will never drink the same beer twice.’
That’s the type of mentality, we have today, right?
In a moment of honesty, Brian noted that the one-and-done drinking philosophy leaves him a bit befuddled. He explained, “I mean, let’s say a chef cooks you the best steak you could ever want. Later on, when you want another steak, do you go to a new restaurant? Hell, no!”
But, Brian refuses to look at the pint glass as half empty. “Yes, we could go bang our head against the wall, but it’s like, Well, fuck it, let’s look at this thing from the other side; how do we embrace this?”
There’s never a better time to be a beer drinker ever in the history of the world than right now in America.
So, if there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker, why can’t it be that there’s never been a better time to be a beer brewer? So, now, it’s like I have almost creative license to make any beer.”
If you want proof that Sierra has embraced the beer geek’s love affair with beer variety, look no further than its Beer Camp 12-pack. This year’s offering included six domestic craft-beer collaborations and six international partnerships. Everything from a Raspberry Sundae Ale to Barley Wine and Berliner Weisse to White IPA is included in the pack — a veritable boxed-beer buffet.
“Fuck Bad Beer”
Craft beer has yet to eclipse 15% of the market share, but Brian’s biggest issue involves some of the many new breweries to arrive in the last few years.
“My fear is entirely around bad beer. I mean this wholeheartedly, “Fuck Bad Beer!”
“There has been so much work by so many great people to get [craft breweries] to where we’re at today. Shame on you for walking into our world and making mediocre products.”
“If you want to open up a burger joint, you know, fantastic. Open up your burger joint, but you don’t open up your burger joint and say, ‘I’m going to hire some burger maker and I’m going to give you McDonald’s burgers.’ It’s disrespectful for the folks that have worked so hard.”
Many craft breweries are coming in with investors and money behind them, to which Brian commented, “With the new big money behind them, I say ‘great’ because they can spend their money on a microscope. They can spend their money on a D.O. meter. They can spend their money on something better than just something shiny.
“When you have passionate people with less spending money; they do what they can to make the best beer. If you’ve got passionate people with more than money, oh my God, you should be able to turn out fantastic beer.”
But, that isn’t always the case.
Corporate Beer & Buyouts
What about those with the biggest money of all, such as AB InBev?
“When you look at a sellout type situation or the buying situation, I mean, the company that has the floor that is dedicated to disruption:
Are we afraid? I wouldn’t say that, but you God damn better be aware of what’s happening around you. Their execution is perfect. I mean, you can’t help but admire how well they think-and how well they execute their strategy. When you look at what they have done, they do it perfectly.
So, you know, [with the beer in Beer Camp] all these brewers that we collaborate with are truly trying to make the industry better. And when you’ve got a counter course or an undercurrent, whatever term you want to use, that is very well put together, um, you just can not underestimate those guys and what they do.
I mean, yes, we don’t like their liquid, But, by resting on your work, saying “Our liquid is better than their liquid and I’ll be okay,’ is stupid.”
Bat Shit Passion for Family
When Ken Grossman called Ayinger, a Bavarian Brewery with a policy against participating in brewing collaborations, the brewery agreed to join the Beer Camp project. Simply put, Ayinger put its policy aside for a brewery it respected, notably because it is family owned. Brian commented, “When a family-owned brewer calls another family-owned brewer, it means something, especially in Germany. Breweries in that area have that deep rooted generational type of feel. And brewers of family owned businesses get that; there’s a respect there among family-owned breweries.”
That love of family within the brewing industry exists among American craft breweries, too. Indeed, Brian once did a collaboration, personally, with Dogfish Head founder, Sam Calagione, who in years past had collaborated with Brian’s dad Ken. The chance to work with Brian — the second generation of Sierra Nevada — moved Sam enough to give Brian a pair of nunchucks.
Brian, “I still have them today, and I still have the Chinese newspaper they were wrapped in, from Chinatown. He gave me these nunchucks and said, ‘I want you to give these to my boy when he takes the reigns. He looks to us a successful transition from one to two, and he wants the same for his brewery.”
Bat Shit Passionate About the Environment
Brian and his family, including his Star-Wars-swag adorned children, make their home in North Carolina. Brian oversees the Sierra Nevada Mills River Taproom and Restaurant located six miles from the historical, breathtaking Biltmore Estate and Vineyard.
“The attendants of the Vanderbilt; they’re fucking great people…they’re environmentalists just like us.” Sierra has collaborated with the Biltmore crew on grape and grain dinners (beer, wine and food pairings ), placed beer in Biltmore’s wine barrels and engaged in fundraisers that “Primarily focus environmental concerns.” One dinner, Brian described, supported a particular volunteer group that supports environmental causes. “They bought a boat with the fundraiser that we did. It was awesome!”
Sierra, winners of numerous environmentalism awards including the EPA’s Green Business of the Year in 2010, built a LEED certified platinum brewery in North Carolina. They also rely on power provided by 10,000 solar panels in Chico, California, as well as thoroughly filter its water before it vacates the brewery. Sierra Nevada also remains one of the largest organic-hop purchasers. While praiseworthy, some have argued that it’s easier for a company like Sierra Nevada to be “green” because they have more green to spend.
Brian has a different take. “I mean, the money of course helps, don’t get me wrong. But, you don’t need to spend more money to be more green. It’s about awareness, including for people at home.”
“It’s something as simple as knowing, taking a five-gallon bucket or a good sized vessel, and put it underneath your sink so you can figure out your flow rate from your faucets; it’s just simple.” He added, “So, when you’re sitting there doing dishes, and you leave the faucet running as you’re cleaning dishes, you at least now have an awareness of ‘Oh, my God it’s three gallons a minute that I’m just sort of wasting here.’
I mean, it’s not money we’re talking about. It’s awareness.
Brian added, “ So, we have this 400 seat restaurant in North Carolina, and we do 4,000 plates of food on a Saturday. It’s amazing. But, I walk to the kitchen, and I yell at people when they’re defrosting meat by running water over it in the sink, leaving the faucet on; that’s standard practice in the business. To me, that’s absolutely unacceptable. I mean, yes, if you get slammed, and you aren’t prepared, okay. You can only prepare for the 99%. But, that means 99% of the time you should be doing it right. It’s not hard, you know?” I tell the staff to pull the proteins out three days before and put them in a fridge and let them do a gradual deep thaw over three days versus a water defrost.”
Brian talked for nearly 20 minutes about some amazing devices used in California and North Carolina that recycle gases, water, etc. An entire article on its green business practices could easily fill an entire magazine. Suffice it to say; Brian could talk all day about the environment, the systems Sierra has in place and how the systems work — he’s a bit of an engineering nerd. Becuase, you know, he’s bat shit passionate about…everything!
If you’d like to read about Sierra Nevada Brewing’s bat shit passion for Mother Earth, check out the brewery’s sustainability page , which includes its 2015 sustainability report.
Anyone who knows history, notably when it involves the craft-beer story, knows Sierra Nevada’s place within that narrative. For a new generation of beer drinkers, it may be tough to fully comprehend the strong influence people like Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe and Ken Grossman had in starting a movement that’s now 5,300 breweries large. Nonetheless, past success and good reputation don’t sell beer — it requires good beer and good business sense. Brian Grossman has made it clear; Sierra isn’t resting on its story or influence.
That’s because Sierra Nevada remains bat shit passionate.