Sierra Nevada Brewing Co: Connecting Beer And Agriculture
Many people are familiar with the "farm-to-table" movement, but what about farm-to-glass? Farm-to-glass is the beer industry's version of "farm-to-table," which emphasizes the use of seasonal and locally sourced foods. Instead of using fresh and local ingredients to create wholesome food, however, breweries use locally grown and harvested hops to make craft beer. This trend was pioneered by Sierra Nevada, which is one of the largest and most popular breweries in the United States. Sierra Nevada started creating its own hops in 2002, and it continues to produce small-batch, specialized beers today using organic and sustainable growing techniques.
About Sierra Nevada
Sierra Nevada was founded in 1978. It was started in Chico, California by homebrewers Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi. Grossman is now the brewery's owner. When Sierra Nevada started, it was one of less than 50 craft breweries in the United States. Today, it is the largest privately owned craft brewery in the country, with annual production rates reaching nearly one million barrels of beer. Since the company was founded, the number of craft breweries in the US has grown to nearly 3,000. Sierra Nevada has certainly faced some competition from the increasing number of breweries in the market, but over the years it's managed to retain its popularity by producing consistently high-quality and innovative beers. One way that Sierra Nevada has managed to stay successful is by adapting its hops growing techniques to overcome external pressures and environmental changes.
What Are Hops?
Hops are essentially to beer what grapes are to wine. Although small-batch craft beer has recently become trendy, hops have been used to make beer for hundreds of years. The plants were first harvested and used to produce alcohol in the early 1620s by settlers in New England. When settlers moved westward, they took their crops with them. This meant that hops were planted in small patches around the United States, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and California. Today, they're grown throughout the country. Hops are climbing plants that come in many varieties. In the United States, there are currently around 120 varieties of hops. Hop plants, like grapes, have different tastes depending on local factors like the altitude at which they're grown and the soil that they are planted in.
Why Sierra Nevada Is Particular About Hops
Sierra Nevada modified its practices to adopt the "grow local" philosophy that has been embraced by farms across the United States. They have focused on setting aside plots of fertile land to grow hops. By having its own supply of hops, the company has been immune from production and sales declines that have been problematic in the brewing industry around the country. As the demand for craft beers grows, having a personal supply of hops will be even more critical in the future.
The company started experimenting with homegrown hops in 2002. The goal was to try making novelty beers using a variety of different hops. The test, which was launched in Chico, CA, proved successful. The batch of beers created by the first round of hops had strong sales, and customers gave positive feedback for the new generation of beer. Another advantage of having its own crop of hops, the company found, was that it could endure crop shortages that affected other breweries around the country who used the same hops suppliers.
Hops that are carefully grown and properly managed, however, tend to fair well. If farmers follow proper growing techniques, including growing the plants in the right temperature zone and watering them sufficiently, the plants do quite well. Once established, they can live for 25-50 years, and they will continue to reproduce and sprout more flowers. Successful hop fields can grow significantly, as evidenced by the fact that Sierra Nevada's three-acre plot of hops, which started in 2002, expanded to an 11-acre field by 2008.
Continuing The Trend Of Innovation
After Sierra Nevada had success with their first batch of crops, they expanded their growing practices to producing barley, too. The company launched its first barley trial run in 2008, when it started a 30-acre field of barley. Sierra Nevada has found success with its barley fields too, and its barley crop is now almost 100 acres. Together, barley and hops create some of the company's most famous beers. They're also used to make seasonal, specialty, and limited edition beers. One such beer is the Estate Homegrown IPA, which was sold as the first organic beer in the country. It is made using hops and barley from the company's lands in Chico, CA, and it is one of the world's only estate-grown beers.
Along with beers, Sierra Nevada's fertile growing lands in Mills River and Chico have also been used to grow herbs and produce. These products have supplied local restaurants in both towns with local and sustainable foods. Together, the company's dedication to using minimalist, pesticide-free farming techniques has proven successful in keeping it going in the face of adversity. Considering its success, the trend of "growing local" appears to be just as promising for the beer industry as it has been for the food and agricultural industry.