Beer Town: Beer camp done in good taste

The beer geek equivalent of rock ‘n' roll or baseball fantasy camp, Sierra Nevada Beer Camp offers participants an intensive two-day course in big-time craft brewing.

Campers go behind the scenes at Sierra’s sprawling brewery campus in Chico, Calif., to experience the process — from digging their hands into malt and hops, observing the work in the quality control labs and attending a mini tasting panel. Best of all, they help create a one-of-a-kind experimental beer in the pilot brewery.

Owner Ken Grossman founded Sierra in 1979, and is still involved in every aspect of the operation. His brother, Steve Grossman, also known as the brewery’s “ambassador,” has been the leader of Beer Camp since the beginning, three years ago.

“We were trying to think of a way to get people in to see what we do here,” Grossman said. “Now that we’re getting larger, I think there’s a perception that our goals and values might have changed. Obviously, that could not be further from the truth. So we just thought if we have people come in and make beer with us, they can see firsthand.”

In December, I arrived at Beer Camp No. 66, joining a dozen or so fellow campers from around the country, including Adam Tolsma, the Atlanta-based beer buyer for Green’s Beverages.

Fred Crudder, the beverage director for Taco Mac, attended Beer Camp No. 3 in 2008. Dave Blanchard, one of the owners of Brick Store Pub in Decatur, was at Beer Camp No. 8 in 2009. The number of campers has steadily grown since.

“The first year, the plan was do one every other month,” Grossman said. “Now, it’s turned out to be almost every other week. That you are at Camp 66, means it’s been a great success story.”

The research and development team of pilot head brewer Scott Jennings and pilot brewer Mark Hurd guided our beer-making journey over a long day in and out of the brewhouse. We came up with a hybrid American/Belgian imperial red ale made with Patagonia caramel malt and a variety of hops, and fermented with a special Belgian yeast strain.

Although Beer Camp has obvious PR benefits for Sierra Nevada, Jennings noted other less conspicuous benefits, too.

“It’s turned out to be great research and development for us,” Jennings said. “We’ve gotten a lot of really good experience after brewing 66 different Beer Camp beers.”

Besides that, Grossman said Beer Camp has helped bring a more innovative spin to a company that’s best known for its top-selling Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

“When Sierra Pale Ale came out 31 years ago, it was cutting edge,” Grossman said. “There was no beer like it commercially. But the market has changed over the years.

“Beer Camp has given us the opportunity to make beers here that we never would have made before. We’d never made fruit beers or some of the other unique styles before this. Now we’ve had beers come out of Beer Camp that we’ve released commercially. Hoptimum Imperial IPA is one example, and we’re going to release that again.”

While we were all happy with the pretty red color and big hoppy presence of our Beer Camp 66 brew, there’s no telling exactly how it will come out. If all goes according to plan, though, there should be some to sample on draft here in Atlanta in another month or so.

I’ll let you know when and where, as soon as I find out.