Sierra Nevada Brewing founder Ken Grossman recently released a book detailing the humble beginnings and rise of what is today one of the largest breweries in the country. Having grown up in Chico California, and being the same age as the brewery, Sierra Nevada has always been a part of my environment. I recently finished Grossman’s Beyond the Pale and it was a quick and enjoyable read for me.
While the financial side of some the details Grossman gets into are beyond me I am very familiar with the geography and local businesses mentioned throughout the book. I’ve visited the bike shop Grossman worked at when he first moved to Chico, and I attended Butte College where he learned to weld and fabricate the equipment he needed to start the brewery. I frequently visit Dawn at the Chico Home Brew Shop that she took over from Grossman (via her since deceased husband) when he decided to start the brewery. I knew exactly where he was talking about when mentioning the site of his home brew shop, original brewery, and potential brewery expansion locations. It was great to get some perspective and a time line for how everything happened to create the ~1 million barrel brewery and one of Chico’s largest employers.
There is plenty of lore and legend surrounding Sierra Nevada, especially among Chico locals. The book didn’t really get into the many rumored buyout attempts by larger breweries, or other urban legends. It did however delve deeply into the deterioration of Grossman’s relationship with his co-founder Paul Camusi. Honestly even from Grossman’s telling it sounded somewhat unreasonable how Camusi was essentially pushed out for not working the insane hours that Grossman put in to keep the brewery growing. Grossman discusses the many paths Sierra Nevada almost took as the ownership settled out, and the details are very interesting.
The book also gets into Sierra Nevada’s many sustainability efforts. These include covering most of the brewery with solar panels and reclaiming CO2 from the brewing proccess. I remember then California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visiting town for the unveiling of the brewery’s new fuel cells, so it was interesting to read about the trouble the brewery went through to keep this bleeding edge technology functioning.
As a home brewer, beer geek, and Sierra Nevada fan I was also interested in the information about the brewing processes. The best part of the book for me was the details of the breweries being built. From the cobbled together dairy equipment and scraps at the original location, to the massive fermenters of today’s facility. Sierra Nevada worked many months before they sold their first beer to make sure they had a quality and consistent product. I also loved the names dropped of folks that helped Grossman along the way like Charles Bamforth from UC Davis, Fritz Maytag from Anchor Brewing, and Jack McAuliffe of New Albion. Grossman really lived and helped create the history of the craft beer revolution in California.
Beyond the Pale wanders a bit sometimes and repeats it self other times but Grossman is not a professional writer so that’s to be expected. I didn’t read the book for a literary masterpiece. If you’re interested in brewing or the beer industry you really should read it, but it’s also valuable as a great story of someone thoughtfully creating a successful and sustainable business through many hours of hard work and decades of perseverance.