Sierra Nevada Beer Camp #94 – part I

*Please join us in welcoming our newest Bierkast writer, Keith Ely! You can currently find Keith behind the bar at Angel City Brewery’s new on-site tap room. Keith was selected for Sierra Nevada beer camp based on his video: check it out. This is a great story, and it was so epic we had to break it up into two parts. So enjoy and stay tuned for more…

Beer Camp Overview

Golden TicketIn early December, I was lucky enough to attend the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp that is open to the public once a year.  To enter the contest, you have to submit a video.  After the submission period ends, 10 videos are chosen by vote, and 10 are chosen by judges’ choice.  I was thrilled to be selected because, to put it quite simply, attending camp is any beer lover’s dream.  Aside from a behind the scenes tour of the brewery and the opportunity to try select Sierra Nevada beers that don’t get a wide distribution, the main draw of beer camp is that each group of campers actually gets to make their own beer with the R & D department of Sierra Nevada.  Imagine touring Willy Wonka’s factory but at the end of the tour you actually get to help make a batch of chocolate!

The process works like this: each group comes up with an idea for a beer and beer style they have interest in creating, and then, along with the head brewers of the R & D department, collectively formulate a recipe to be brewed by Sierra Nevada.  The group of beer campers also gets to help with the small stuff – milling grain, gathering ingredients, and adding hops during the appropriate times in the boil.  Advanced homebrewers, and total newbies alike can take joy in the process.  Sierra Nevada literally sent us a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory style Golden Ticket to present at the door.

The home of some Cascade hops that go into the Estate Ale after each harvest in September

The home of some Cascade hops that go into the Estate Ale after each harvest in September

The style our group decided on was a Belgian Black IPA (or Cascadian Ale, Cascadian Dark Ale, or whatever beer drinkers, brewers, and the BJCP style guide ever definitively decide to call this style) with Simcoe hops for bittering, and Sorachi Ace, as well as Nelson Sauvin hops for the flavor/aroma additions.  What makes our beer unique is that even though it’s quite dark color wise, the hops in it will give it a much lighter feel.  Nelson Sauvin hops are from New Zealand, and have an almost white wine like aroma, and Sorachi Ace hops, developed by Sapparo for use in their beers, have a coconut/lemon type of scent. The name we decided upon for our dark looking but almost tropically hopped beer was, quite fittingly, Sleight of Hand.

What makes Sierra Nevada Unique?

Okay, so outside of getting to collaborate on a beer with Sierra Nevada, what makes beer camp so special?  Why is this a once in a lifetime experience for a beer lover?  Well, I’ll put it as simply as possible.  Being at Sierra Nevada is inspiring.  Touring their facilities, meeting their employees, taking in their vision for the future, their current mission, and contemplating how far this company has come in 30 years is truly amazing.  If you want to know why Sierra Nevada makes quality beer after beer, you really have to understand that as a company, they are doing things are rare for a company their size.  I dare say, if many other companies of the same size adopted some of their principals, the world of industry would probably be a better and perhaps more interesting place.

HotRot works its magic

HotRot works its magic

The thing that probably encapsulates all of this better than anything else is Sierra Nevada’s Estate Ale that they brew once a year.  The hops and barley used in the ale are grown organically on site, and nurtured with compost that Sierra Nevada gets from their massive poundages of spent hops, scraps from their restaurant and pub, and essentially anything they have that can be composted.

Sierra Nevada is actually one of only a few companies in the world that have a HotRot composter which essentially speeds up the compost process.  Every 2 weeks, this amazing contraption spits out some ready to use, high quality compost.  I should also mention that Sierra Nevada sends all their spent grains to a local farmer, whose cattle they use later in their pub for beef dishes.  This company is all about closing loops, and making everything have multiple uses.

Ovila Releases

Visions of Sugar PlumsVisions of Sugar Plums, a holiday themed Abbey ale brewed with the above mentioned monks.  The plums in the beer are grown on site at the Abbey of New Clairaux, and Sierra Nevada has also done beers using other ingredients from the Abbey.  They recently aged their Ovila Dubbel in Pinot barrells from the Abbey’s vineyard.  Great holiday beer, available only in their gift shop.

Sierra Nevada brews a line of Abbey ales in conjunction with monks who reside at the Abbey of New Clairaux, just 20 miles north of Chico.  A portion of each sale goes towards the monks’ dream of restoring the historic Santa Maria de Ovila chapter house that is currently being rebuilt on site.

The chapter house in the process of being rebuilt.  Truly remarkable to see a structure centuries old being rebuilt in the modern era.

The chapter house in the process of being rebuilt. Truly remarkable to see a structure centuries old being rebuilt in the modern era.

The chapter house stood for nearly eight centuries in Spain, before being purchased by William Randolph Hearst for the purpose of being used at an estate he planned in Wyntoon, Ca, that was to surpass San Simeon in scope.  Hearst was never able to complete the estate because of the Great Depression and the effect it had on his business, and the stones eventually ended up with the Abbey of New Clairaux.  The monks residing there approached Ken Grossman a few years back to collaborate on some abbey style ales, in attempt to raise some funds for their project, and he jumped at the chance.  Everyone benefits – the monks will eventually be able to see their dream come to fruition, and Sierra Nevada once again delivers some amazing beer to the public.

… the journey continues in Part II, stay tuned, it’ll be posted next week!

About John Rockwell

John Rockwell is a co-founder of LA Ale Works and contributing writer to Bierkast. He has been home brewing for over seven years and is a certified BJCP judge, "Bring me your beer!".

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