I’ve been pretty lucky over the years, when I think about it – having been able to visit breweries of all shapes and sizes, and speak to the people who work there, making beer of every description. From one end of the scale, beermakers producing their wares in campervans or from one-barrel kits in distillery outbuildings, to the other of enormous production facilities with gleaming machinery and push-button automation. And then, above that, there is Sierra Nevada. The Californian brewery, having outgrown its Chico home, opened a second on the east coast of the US in February, 2014. Located in the small town of Mills River, North Carolina (a few miles south of the beer-centric city of Asheville), their facility is quite simply on a scale I have never seen before.
It’s not just the size of the place – the brewhouse there is 200BBL, twice that of their original Chico brewery – it’s more the way everything is utterly seamless. Breweries, by and large, are fairly similar – at least, the mechanisms and flow of the places are – but it’s what’s over and above those fundamentals that make them memorable. Cantillon, for instance, is about the history and the living museum that it has become. Mills River is another world to that – with Sierra Nevada staff waiting at every door, with a smoothness and slickness to the operation. It’s as if nothing has been overlooked, at any stage. You can even arrive in a limo, if you wish (they do pickups from the nearby Asheville airport). True, the stops had been pulled out for our tour party (our guide was Brian Grossman, son of founder Ken Grossman) – but I didn’t get the sense that our experience was that unusual.
The packaging hall – which on another day could double as a fill-in for an airport baggage hall – can package 900 bottles a minute, which is some statistic until Brian casually states that last year Sierra Nevada shipped the equivalent of 330,000,000 bottles (although that figure is really only for show, as it includes the draught beer as an equivalent, bundled into the calculation). Anyway, it’s still a big number, even without the kegs. This photo above is the canning line – and helter-skelter room – where they churn out two six-packs of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale every second. Not on the day we were there, though – the regular tours wind up and around behind glass to let people have a look at what’s going on without being deafened by the noise from the two packaging halls.
Fans of Sierra Nevada in the UK – and there are many, including myself – might have noticed a difference in recent weeks (or, as the brewery would like it, hopefully you didn’t). Their flagship Pale Ale for export over here was switched from Chico to being produced at Mills River – the freshness of not having to transport it across the country before the Atlantic should mean we get a better beer on our shelves and fridges here in the UK. SNPA was my gateway beer – so it’s great to think that a fresher and more vibrant version is now here in this country. This is the hop store at Mills River, a super-chilled coldstore with the hops just sitting in open bins, as if a stable of isohumulone-loving horses were just out in the paddock, ready to trot in for their evening feed.
But the real eye-opener for me is what was outside the brewery. They have spent a lot to give their Mills River facility the full ‘experience’ treatment – with a huge restaurant, gift shop and massive outdoor terrace. There are fire-pits, outdoor games and even a 300-person capacity stage for live music. And then there’s the forest. Out the back, past the bandstand is a path which you can wander along – it takes a good ten minutes to navigate to the end (en route we passed Sierra Nevada uniform-clad security guards), where you reach this, not the Mills River, but the French Broad. Having their own river gives an expansive riverbank to host events, barbecues and the like – it also apparently allows staff to commute to work from Asheville via kayak. I didn’t get that confirmed by anyone there, but having spent hours wandering around this Willy Wonka Beer Factory, it wouldn’t surprise me.
It’s easy to be cynical over this – how when you turn off the freeway to visit, you roll up the tree-lined ‘Sierra Nevada Way’ to reach the brewery. The company is valued at over $1bn, with revenue last year reaching $250m. Of course they can afford a few trees and their own roadsign. But it’s more the attitude here, that goes with the finance. Turning the science and art of brewing into a destination; a place you could go with your friends or bring the family, and either way stay all day. It’s elevating beer away from industrial estates and into the realms of the resort. I can see how it would make some people uncomfortable, but to me it was near-breathtaking. This is the industry I’ve followed for eight years (and now work in), and it has come to this (although even I think branded soap dispensers is going a little far). Where is it going to go next?