Cofounder and president, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
For starting the war against crappy beer. Without Sierra Nevada, there would most likely be no Dogfish Head, no Magic Hat, no New Belgium. In the ’80s and ’90s, the Chico, California–based craft brewery nearly single-handedly built a market for craft beer in a country whose choices had mostly been weak mass-market lagers. The man behind Sierra's success is the low-key Ken Grossman. A former home-brewer, he grew his company when other micros were dying by honing and refining one core product: the bitter yet refreshing Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which, incidentally, also paved the way for beer geeks' current thirst for highly hopped beers).
Now, of course, we're in a golden age of craft beer, with thousands of choices from creative breweries around the country. Sierra was in danger of being upstaged by younger, newer breweries. (In a story we published last November, younger drinkers assumed Sierra was a big, generic brewery that made boring beer.) Recently, Grossman released new beers like the Bavarian-style unfiltered wheat beer Kellerweis, as well as collaborations with famous brewers like Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head (who was honored in last year's CHOW 13). Sierra's also one of the only breweries in the country to make beer from its own hops, grown (organically) on the brewery's premises for its Estate Harvest Ale series.
What was your big break?
The San Francisco Examiner did a Sunday magazine article on us in the ’80s, featuring my partner and I on stacks of grain at the brewery. We were doing just a few thousands of barrels a year at that point. The craft thing was so new; it was very unknown to 99 percent of the beer-drinking public. That brought us PR, and we sold out for years and years after that.
What are you looking forward to in the coming months?
We just announced a collaboration project with a local Trappist monastery 20 miles north of the brewery. We've been meeting with the monks. There's a Trappist heritage of brewing beer, of course, but this particular monastery raises fruits, nuts, and has a winery. Up until now they did not make beer. We've been visiting Trappist monasteries in Belgium to prepare for that.
What was your most humbling moment in your current profession?
A few years back, we switched from twist-off caps to pry-off caps, because we did a lot of research on oxygen getting into the beer. We thought not that many people [would] notice. I didn't realize what a huge upheaval we'd have. People had gotten used to the twist-off ease of use. We got hilarious emails from people who were somewhere without a bottle opener, and how they figured out how to open their beer.