Beer Scout: Sierra Nevada opens to the public

GIFT OF GLASSWARE: The gift shop at Sierra Nevada's Mills River facility is now open and stocks a variety of beer-friendly vessels. Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

For the past few months, anyone has been able to tour the new Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River — sort of. The tour, called a “hard hat tour,” was not the same as the standard Sierra tour at the home facility in Chico, Calif. You had to reserve a spot ahead of time. Part of the tour focused on the construction process. And, most importantly, you were not allowed to drink any beer.

That all changed last week when the brewery finished the last pieces it needed to open up the main building for regular tours. 

The New Tour

According to Sierra Nevada beer ambassador Bill Manley, here’s how the new tour unfolds: 

First things first: Manley says reservations may no longer be required but they are recommended. “Even if you’re stopping by with just one or two people, we recommend reserving a tour time on our website or by phone,” says Manley. “Tours can fill up pretty quick.”

Once you arrive at the brewery, the tour starts in the main lobby, where you meet your tour guide. The tour guides, by the way, know their stuff. A mixture of new hires and transfers from the Chico brewery, they’ve been training on site for almost four months, according to Manley. 

The tour starts with a bit of photo and video history of Sierra Nevada and then moves on to the brewhouse. The brewhouse part of the tour essentially takes the group through the beer-making process from grain to glass. The guides cover the major brewing ingredients — water, hops, malt and yeast — as visitors wind through the fermentation cellars and up to the tasting room. 

The tasting room is a big part of the tour experience. The room is elevated and looks out over the brewhouse, hops freezer and fermentation tanks. “It’s essentially like a bar with a view, but one where we don’t sell any beer,” says Manley. 

The beer is served in sample size only in the tasting room, at least partly due to Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control laws. On tap for the first tour group was a mix of Sierra’s core beers, seasonals and a couple of specialties. There was fresh pale ale and Torpedo IPA, but there was also Flipside IPA, one of the Ovilia series, and the award-winning Narwhal Imperial Stout. 

It’s not a mandatory part of the tour, but the gift shop is now open at the brewery as well. While you might think you have enough pint glasses, it’s probably worth checking out. The brewery is already trying to stock beer you can’t find anywhere else around town — for example, Bigfoot barley wine, which has already been pulled from stores this year. The shop plans to add even rarer beer once the pilot brewery is up and running, according to Manley: “Most of what we do on the pilot system will be draft for our pub or for the local market, but we will also have some specialty stuff in bottles, which will be sold in the gift shop.”

There’s also a complete selection of Sierra gear, including merchandise you don’t see that often. For example, the shop stocks a full complement of cycling bibs and jerseys and higher-ticket collaborations with companies like Marmot. Oh, and if you do happen to need a pint glass, they have those too.

The Final Stretch

The brewery is now open daily for tours (see hours below); however, there is still construction going on and significant parts left to finish. “Right now, we’re working on our pub and the pilot brewery,” says Manley. “That means after a tour there’s no place to buy a pint just yet.” 

Manley says all the work on those pieces is scheduled to be completed by January, though of course anything can happen. From there, Sierra will focus on an outdoor event space for live music as well as some enhancements for the restaurant. “We want big outdoor seating areas and [we’re planning] a big wood-burning oven for pizza as well … though that probably won’t happen until spring,” says Manley. 

Once construction is finally finished, Manley says additional tour options are a possibility. “In Chico, we have three to four varieties of tours, including a beer geek tour with more tastings and a sustainability tour … but as far as those types of tours happening here we’re looking at 2015 at the earliest.” 

Sierra Nevada tours are now running every day of the week, and there is no cost for the tour or tasting. Tours are for ages 12 and older, although the tasting is limited to ages 21 and older. For reservations you can visit www.sierranevada.com or call 708-6176. The brewery is at 100 Sierra Nevada Way in Mills River. 

 

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About Thom O'Hearn
Thom O’Hearn is a writer, book editor and homebrewer. Twitter: @thomohearn

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