by Mark Heise
I wrote my last article the day before I left for Beer Camp. It has now been 3 weeks since, so I figured I should jot down some notes before I forget.
To recap: For winning a gold medal at the NHC, my prize was a trip to Sierra Nevada Beer Camp in Chico, CA. The Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is one of the largest craft brewers in the world (production is approx 800,000 barrels per year). In fact, they are so big, some people would say they are no longer a craft brewer. I strongly disagree. Their commitment to producing only the finest quality ales and lagers is unwavering, and this was reinforced time and time again during Beer Camp. Here is a pic with some of their fermenters on the left, each one holds 800bbls (93,600 litres)… they have 55 of them.
I can’t possibly describe the entire trip, there was so much to see, and way too much information to digest in such a short time, but here are some brief highlights:
– On my way there, I stopped in at the New Belgium Hub in the Denver airport, and enjoyed a pint of Hoptoberfest (their new fall seasonal, which I would describe as a lightly bittered, but very hoppy, blonde IPA) with my breakfast at 9:30am. A great pre-game warm up, so to speak.
– Arrived at the Sacramento airport, and immediately hit it off with 4 other Beer Campers. This would set the tone for the rest of trip – the 13 Campers (all NHC gold medal winners) carried on like old friends, and everyone at the brewery was extremely friendly and treated us like honoured guests.
– Arrived at the Sierra Nevada taproom and restaurant (adjacent to the brewery), and enjoyed a pint of their Estate Harvest Ale (a strong pale ale/mild IPA entirely made from barley and hops grown at the brewery), an absolutely incredible beer. This was the “go to” beer for most of the campers throughout our stay.
– Got to have dinner with Ken Grossman (SN founder and CEO) and Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head founder and President), who at the same time were also brewing a collaborative beer called Life & Limb (a 10% stout made with maple syrup from Sam’s farm in Mass, and more of the estate barley from SN). Sam brought us a taste of the first runnings, and some guys were asking for more! If you are travelling to the US this winter, definitely be on the lookout for this beer.
– Ken not only knew where Saskatchewan was, but he and some of the staff make a yearly visit to Biggar to check out the barley crop (and resultant malt).
– Drank freshly dryhopped Harvest Ale (made with wet hops) and Celebration Ale (their winter IPA) from the conditioning tanks. Wow! Talk about fresh hop character! The saying, “beer tastes better when you are closest to the source,” certainly rang true several times on this trip.
– Got to hang out in their 2 massive hop storage rooms. They already had some of the 2009 crop in (they are the largest purchaser of whole hops in the world, so they get first dibs), plus lots of rare and experimental varities, and we were free to crush up cones and give them a sniff. Absolutely frigid, but a hop head’s dream nonetheless!
– Tasted a wackload of limited release and experimental beers. SN is mostly known for their hoppy pale ales and IPAs, so I was blown away by the variety of styles. I tasted Scotch on Scotch (scotch ale aged in scotch barrels), Imperial smoked porter, Edge of Darkness (hoppy brown ale), the Empire Strikes Black (imperial stout), Imperial red ale, Belgian tripel, Brown ale, Oktoberfest, 22 Bines (IPA made with 22 bines of wet estate hops), Hop Secret 393 (IPA made with experimental hop 393), and a big Stock Ale. There was only one I didn’t care for, the rest were world class.
– Collaborated on a recipe with the other Campers, then brewed 2 batches of that recipe on the SN 10bbl pilot system (their production kettles are 100bbl and 200bbl). That amounts to roughly the equivalent of 1200 batches of homebrew! We settled on a big Baltic Porter, with a split of Munich and Vienna for the base, a touch of molasses and star anise at the end of the boil, and then gave it a good dose of Saaz in the hopback. We named it “Golden Ticket” (based on the Wonka-esque Golden Ticket invitations we received to Beer Camp), and it will be a limited-release, draft only beer. Look for it at better beer bars if you happen to be in the US this winter. Hey Tim, wanna see if anyone wants to split a bag of Munich?
– Took part in a Bigfoot vertical tasting with the head of their sensory lab. We tasted 2009, 2006, 2003, and 2000. Bigfoot has always been one of my favourite US barleywines, so this was a real treat, and a great way to see how big beers age and change over time.
– The other campers brought several “American wild ales” to sample. This is the most exciting “style” in craft beer at the moment; the creativity and possibilities are almost endless. Lots of experimentation with different microbes and aging in all types of barrels (red wine, white wine, bourbon, etc). Unfortunately, no breweries in Canada are making wild ales, nor are any of these fine US versions available in Canada (although I heard Jolly Pumpkin is now available in some of the finer private liquor stores in BC), so again, this was a real treat for me. The whole group found these beers were an awesome change-up/palate refresher from the almost constant assault of hops we were typically sampling. I will definitely keep this in mind when planning future tastings.
– There was a total overload of technical brewing information offered up. SN did not hold back one bit, no question was off limits or went unanswered. The only thing we weren’t allowed to do was photograph the inside of their new proprietary “Torpedo” dry-hopping devices (holy crap, are those things cool). Our tour guides weren’t a bunch of no-nothing summer student types that often run brewery tours; we spent the bulk of our time with assistant brewmaster Terrence Sullivan and Steve Grossman (Brewery Ambassador and brother of CEO Ken), both of which know about every aspect of the SN operation. Their honesty was so refreshing from the typical marketing mumbo-jumbo and secrecy that most big companies put up as a front. The size and scale they operate on is mind-boggling, but they ultimately make beer the exact same way that we do at home (right down to natural carbonation), so it was pretty cool that you could relate to everything that they do. I don’t think you’d walk of a Molson factory and feel the same way.
I could go on and on and on. I was a fan of SN before Beer Camp, but I now hold them in the absolute highest regard. This trip was the ultimate prize for a homebrewer, and I would love see others get the chance to experience Beer Camp. So get brewing and entering competitions!!!
Thanks to fellow camper Tom Ocque for the pictures (mine are on my computer that is in storage)! His full album is here (including many shots of a handsome looking fellow wearing an ALES t-shirt). http://web.me.com/tommyok/Sierra_Nevada_Beer_Camp_14/Beer_Camp.html