The just-drinks Interview - Sierra Nevada Brewing Co founder Ken Grossman - Part I

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When Ken Grossman co-founded Sierra Nevada Brewing Co 35 years ago, he had little expectation of the huge success the company would achieve. Today, it is the second largest craft brewer in the US, behind Boston Beer Co. But, how has Sierra Nevada managed to stay sharp in the increasingly-competitive sub-category? just-drinks' deputy editor James Wilmore gets the lowdown from the Californian company's boss

Ken Grossman turns 60 this year: A milestone in any man's life. But, the wily, bearded brewer shows little sign of hanging up his thermometer just yet. As I sit with Grossman in the offices of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, the firm he co-founded in 1979 in the north-east Californian town of Chico, I suggest he is a workaholic. "Yeah, I work a lot," he acknowledges. "But, I would like to work less."

For the time being, this may prove difficult. Two years ago, Grossman - widely regarded as one of the architects of the US craft beer movement - revealed a move to build a new Sierra Nevada production site on the US east coast, in North Carolina. These plans are now coming to fruition. The first beers from the plant are due to hit the shelves as we speak in late-February. It may seem a bold step, but Grossman says it's something that was first planned five years ago. "We ship a lot of beer from the west to the (US) east coast," he says. "It really didn't make good business, or environmental, sense to be transporting beer that far."

From talking to Grossman, you quickly become aware he sees himself as a brewer first and a businessman a long second. "I never really got into the (brewing) business to make money, that was never my motivating factor," he ventures. Nevertheless, there is no questioning that, despite, Grossman's humble beginnings as a home-brewer in the late-1970s with his friend Paul Camusi (who subsequently sold his stake in Sierra Nevada in 1998), a business is what he has, and a global one at that. From an initial annual brewing capacity of 3,000 barrels, the Chico site today boasts a capacity of 1m.

World domination is far from Grossman's mind however. "We get approached almost daily from export markets to ship beer," he explains. "There's a huge amount of interest from Asia, Central and South American countries and Europe.

"But, we've been fairly slow and cautious about where we've expanded to, just because of the challenges ... There's a lot of opportunity, but we've just chosen at this point not to be very aggressive."

In spite of that, Sierra Nevada will launch into its first official Asian market in the coming months: Japan. "We're still having discussions, but it will be this year," says Grossman.

Elsewhere, the company is doing "quite well" in Australia and has distribution in Europe - the UK, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, and "a bit" in Germany.

Why the caution with exports?

"For a long time, we didn't have the capacity and it didn't make sense to spend a lot of time, energy and resources expanding outside of our footprint," says Grossman. The other concern was the risk of stretching themselves, and ultimately, the quality of the product. The company employs 15 quality control people to ensure the company "keeps doing what we want to do, which is make the best beer there is".

Much of Sierra Nevada's success is down to its flagship Pale Ale. With its distinctive green and gold label, boasting of "purest ingredients" and "finest quality", the 5.6% abv beer has been the company's calling card since its inception. Apart, that is, from a brief experiment with a stout in the very early days. Was it always the intention to make Pale Ale the flagship? "We always thought our pale ale was going to be the leader," says Grossman. The brand still dominates today, accounting for around 70% of Sierra Nevada's sales.

But, as Grossman acknowledges, the US craft beer sector is a fast-evolving space. Even the country's second largest craft brewer cannot afford to rest on its laurels. "Consumers are pushing for hoppier, more esoteric beer styles, so we're trying to meet a lot of that demand," he says. Incidentally, Grossman says he has no desire to overtake Boston as number one. "A big part of their (Boston's) business is flavoured malt beverages and hard cider," he says. We are brewers who love to make beer and I'm not sure we would have the same passion towards making tea or FMBs (flavoured malt beverages) with some juice added." 

Meanwhile Sierra Nevada is upping the frequency of its seasonal and limited brews. Even so, its Torpedo IPA is performing strongly. Grossman boasts Torpedo is the biggest-selling IPA in the US. No mean feat considering the popularity of the style among the country's craft beer drinkers.

But, as Grossman acknowledges, the modern beer drinker can be a contrary animal. "Craft consumers tends to wander and want to sample different types of beer," he says. "They are less loyal than probably most beer drinkers were five, ten, 20 years ago - they may have a whole staple of brands they like to drink, they don't just drink one." 

Part Two of this interview, where Grossman gives his view on big brewers' attempts to capitalise on craft beer's success and how craft consumers are reacting to cans, can be found here.

Sectors: Beer & cider

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