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Talking Beer Tech and Sustainability with Sierra Nevada Brewing

In 1980, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. started producing beer out of a brewhouse built with dairy equipment salvaged by founder Ken Grossman. Since then the Northern California brewery has become the sixth-largest in the nation. The brewery itself, while...

by Derek Mead
Jun 8 2011, 4:00pm

In 1980, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. started producing beer out of a brewhouse built with dairy equipment salvaged by founder Ken Grossman. Since then the Northern California brewery has become the sixth-largest in the nation. The brewery itself, while remaining true to its greener roots is exploring decidedly new routes in technology. Nowadays the company sports an on-site water treatment facility, natural and bio-gas capable fuel cells with heat recovery systems to reduce the energy needs of their massive boilers, one of the largest private solar arrays in the nation, and carbon dioxide recovery systems integrated into the fermentation process.

The brewery also boasts one of the largest R&D labs in the craft-brew industry. And, while Sierra Nevada is one of the few breweries in the world to grow hops on-site, the company recently completed a rail spur near the brewery to ensure the majority of their hops are delivered from British Columbia as efficiently as possible. Motherboard sat down over a pint with communications director Bill Manley to discuss the nexus between technology, sustainability, and business in Sierra Nevada’s quest to produce top-shelf brews.

We were talking earlier about how you guys are doing everything in production kind of circularly, where you take the byproducts of production and put them back to use. How did that start?
Brewing traditionally is a super wasteful industry. It takes a lot of water, a lot of energy and it takes a lot of natural resources. When Ken Grossman started the brewery, he obviously didn’t have enough money to buy small-scale brewing equipment even if it had existed, which it didn’t. That philosophy of finding something and making it work, and that idea of reusing [and] recycling as much as you could. . . I mean, it wasn’t really a slogan back then, it was a kind of survival.

I think that that idea, that having the least amount of impact and using, reusing, wherever you can, and finding different purposes for other things has really been a core here at Sierra Nevada ever since the very beginning. It’s one of those things that has really pushed us on in the years.

That’s how it started, right? He built his very first brewhouse on his own?
Yeah, that was made out of recycled dairy tanks, a fruit hopper, and recycled stainless steel that he bummed out of dairies that had previously gone out of business.

With all of the grains you use in brewing, what do you do with the waste? I heard you were using those leftovers to feed cattle for your restaurant.
We actually recycle everything. We have a 99.6-percent landfill diversion rate. All of the plastics, the cardboard, the glass, the stainless steel, pretty much everything is recycled and used back here at the brewery in some way, shape, or form. But additionally, as a brewery we use a lot of ingredients like malt and hops, which we’re using millions of pounds of at a time. One batch in our main production brewhouse uses ten thousand pounds of grain. [Most of’] that ten thousand pounds of grain is used, but all the husks and the germs from the barley are left over. That’s still a lot of waste. We’ll take all of that stuff and store it to feed to cattle, or use it as compost or use it in cooking or find some other use for everything we’re doing.

It’s the ultimate goal, to close that loop so we’re not causing a burden on the resources and any certain municipality. We’re really trying to stay autonomous.

I’m curious about your research and development. First, didn’t you invent a new bottle cap?

We didn’t invent it, we just did the research to figure out what was the best possible liner material. I don’t think it had ever been used as a bottle cap material at that point. It took about five or six years’ worth of development and we were going along and really trying to work on something. . . Hop aromas are super volatile. You could leave this beer on the table and walk away for twenty minutes and come back and it would taste slightly different because the carbonation is pushing hop compounds off all the time. If your beer is thirty days old it tastes different than if was sixty days old, or 180 days old, or 280. All of that is constantly in flux because essentially hops are not water soluble. So they’re all moving all of the time. The plastics that were used on the inside of bottle caps would really scalp away that hop aroma.

We found in our research that with these new crown liners, a beer that was a year old had the same amount of oxygen that a beer with our old bottle caps had after sixty days, which is amazing. We made the switch and then also published these white papers out to the entire community. [That] let the whole industry read all of this research we’d done and caused more or less a sea change within the industry. Most people are now switching to this new kind of crown liner, which is pretty impressive. We do a lot of research and development with hop aroma and hop compounds. We discovered three new hop compounds over the past couple of years that nobody had ever done any research on and published that out and into the world. Now it’s more or less common knowledge within the beer community.

How does having that type of research affect your brewing?
It’s great. It’s good that we have one of the most sophisticated labs in the brewing business. Not just the craft brewing business, but the brewing business as a whole. We’re able to do a lot of research that most people neither had the time nor the money nor the inclination to really do previous to recent history. The more work that we can do, and give out to the community, will make the whole community better. I think that if it’s a good craft beer community everybody benefits. When people start making the switch from junky to commodity beer to something that’s a little bit better, and start thinking about what they’re eating and drinking a little more closely, I think everybody’s going to be better off.

What about the Hop Torpedo? I kind of fixated on that because it’s totally proprietary.
About ten years ago Ken and some of our folks were sitting around trying to think of a more efficient way to do dry-hopping. With traditional dry-hopping you take hops, you stuff them in a nylon sack and you put them in a fermentor. [You] fill the fermentor up with beer and just let these hop bags soak, like soaking tea bags but with a cold liquid. But after you pull all the bags some of them would still be dry or they weren’t dispersed or they were all clogged up together. They never really got into the beer. You’re spending all this time and effort trying to get these hops into the beer and then they come out dry.

So we were trying to think of a better, more efficient way to get those big hop aromas and flavors into the beer without having to stick to the traditional dry-hopping methods. Ken started messing around on a bar napkin and figured it out. He was like, ‘What if, instead of bringing the hops to the beer, you brought the beer to the hops?’ and figured out this enclosed vessel that would sit outside of a fermentor and work with the fermenting beer, kind of circulating through the hops and back into the tanks. We started messing with that five years ago and developed it to the point that we felt comfortable releasing our beer Torpedo Extra IPA in 2009, which is fully dry-hopped with this torpedo method. Now we’ve switched most of our dry-hopped beers into using the torpedo. It’s one of the things we designed, developed and built in-house, and we’ve been the sole operators of it ever since.

What else do you do that’s unique to Sierra Nevada?
We’re one of the world’s largest bottle-conditioning breweries. We add a little bit of yeast and a little bit of sugar to flat beer and have it carbonate in the bottle. We’re the world’s largest user of whole-cone hops, which is pretty interesting. We use unprocessed hops that have essentially just been dried and baled. Most other brewers use pelletized versions or chemical extracts to add hop flavor and aroma and bitterness to their beer. We don’t do that at all in our beer. We have one of the largest open fermentation programs in America with our beer Kellerwies which is all fermented in open fermentors.

You have a lot of tech on site, like a waste water treatment plant, solar and fuel cells, that aren’t specifically beer-related. Is that an extra worry day-to-day?
It’s not really an extra worry at all. Once you kind of get that stuff online it runs itself. Obviously it takes a couple of extra people who are familiar with that technology but in the long run it really pays off better for us. Having a constant supply of power. . . I mean, years back when the entire state of California was going through rolling brownouts and blackouts because there just wasn’t enough power to go around, that’s something we won’t ever have to worry about because we generate the majority of our power here on site. With the water treatment plant, we’re taking a lot of load off the municipal water plant. We’re creating more irrigation for our crops, we’re doing a lot of things to bring that water, keep it on site. We’re using once for it’s original purpose and then reuse it as much as we can before sending it back.

Because you don’t really do any marketing, do you think it’s kind of a philosophy here to try to reduce that impact or does it actually have a business case?
You know, it’s a little bit of both, honestly. As far as the marketing thing goes, [Grossman] has never been a big fan of doing the right thing only because it’s fashionable. He frankly doesn’t care if we get a little press over the marketing of sustainability. He’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do, ‘a’, but ‘b’ it also does make business sense. The payout may be a little bit longer, but obviously if you don’t have to pay people to take your trash you’re better off. If you don’t have to buy vegetables and you grow your own you’re better off. If you don’t have to pay PG&E for your power bills you’re better off. It may increase the efficiency of wasted water, or whatever, but all of that stuff costs money. It’s nice to kind of wave the banner philosophically, but it’s also really smart business at the same time.