Think tanks

Sierra Nevada
Sierra Nevada


Last week, Charleston’s major news stations spotted something unusual coming into the port: a cargo ship with the upper deck loaded to capacity with 28 fermentation tanks. All of them were bound for Mills River, site of Sierra Nevada Brewing’s new East Coast facility.

These tanks range in size from 400 to 1,600 barrels. If that sounds big, that’s because it is. For reference, Highland’s largest tank can hold 200 barrels. And since one barrel is 31 gallons, the 1,600 barrel Sierra tanks can hold 49,600 gallons. That’s 529,066 bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

About the Tanks

A German company named Ziemann manufactured the tanks, which then had a long overseas trip to make. While it might seem like Sierra could have found tanks closer than Europe, the company is focused on consistency. They’re putting a tremendous amount of effort into reproducing the beer they made famous in Chico, Ca. — which means uniformity not only in ingredients, but also in equipment.

“Mother Nature never gives you the exact same ingredients. Yeast handles differently … You know how coffee stales as it gets older? It’s the same thing with hops and fresh roasted malts. So you have to calculate your brews in a way where, if nature gives you a curve ball, you can deal with it,” says Brian Grossman of Sierra Nevada.

It turns out that tanks are more important to that process than you might think. The wort is produced in the brewhouse, but the yeast turns wort to beer inside these tanks.

“There’s three T’s of fermentation: time, temperature and top pressure,” says Grossman. “You can affect the three of them to go through your fermentation. As soon as you start adjusting any of them you get different flavor swings.”

Top pressure? That’s where the tanks come in. Their geometry amplifies any pressure that exists in the tank. The taller they are, the greater the weight of the liquid pressing down on the bottom of the tank. “Since that’s where the yeast is, it’s sort of like making the yeast exercise with a weight jacket on,” says Grossman. A simple change in geometry or construction can affect the yeast character evident in the finished beer.

Other Goings-on

While the tanks are the big news of the week, the rest of the brewery-building process is also in full swing. “Depending on the day, we could have more than 150 people out there. It’s an army,” says Grossman.

The entire construction process is working in the reverse of the brewing process: first the warehouse and packaging area, then the cellar and fermentation, then the brewhouse and finally, the tasting room. That means as the tanks arrive, the hard work is almost finished in the packaging hall.

“Many people take packaging for granted, but it’s super important,” says Grossman. “If you don’t handle your beer correctly, all sorts of things can happen. You can underfill or overfill your bottles. You can have O2 pickup and beer will oxidize. Of course, bad sanitation can lead to major problems. Packaging is just vital.”

Actions speak louder than words out in Mills River. This is one serious system (as evidenced by the photos). Made by Krones (another German manufacturer), it will crank out about 850 bottles per minute. Sierra Nevada also tank-conditions, or bottle-conditions, all of their beers — as opposed to using forced carbonation with carbon dioxide. That means there’s some extra complexity when it comes to bottling classics like the pale ale.

“Bottle-conditioning is really what it sounds like: It’s a final conditioning in the bottle,” says Grossman. “It’s commonly used in Champagne [and homebrewing]. You need yeast, oxygen and sugar. When they interact, the yeast turns the sugar to alcohol and the oxygen turns to Co2. If you don’t add any O2 when you add yeast and sugar, the yeast will scavenge the oxygen out of solution, which is great for the shelf life of an unpasteurized beer.”

In addition to the bottling line, there’s equipment in place for filling kegs. Sierra Nevada will be able to fill quite a few varieties, including 15s and 5s for the U.S. market and the 30-liter size for European markets.

What’s next? The brewhouse is already in-house, but there’s still plenty of construction ahead before it can be set up. After that, it will be on to the “customer experience” section of the building, where Sierra plans to start putting some reclaimed site lumber to use.

You can see additional photos and keep up with the Mills River site by visiting sierranevada.com/blog or facebook.com/sierranevadabeer.

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