Construction delays have plagued Sierra Nevada’s Mills River complex over the past two years, but it seems the pieces are finally coming together. The brewery itself has been producing beer for months now, and if you’ve purchased Pale Ale or Torpedo in the local area recently, chances are it came from Mills River. Now, the brewery is ready to open its doors to visitors, at least in some way.
“Hard Hat” Tours (no, they don’t actually make you wear a hard hat, but they are available if you want), started last Sunday and will continue until the middle of September. Participants will get a detailed tour of the brewery, ingredients rooms, packaging line and other areas of the brewery that are ready for guests while walking past areas that are still under construction, including the massive restaurant/event space that will likely open early next year.
I went with a small group on Sunday’s Hard Hat Tour, and our guide Chris “Ivy” Ivesdal did a fantastic job of showing our group around. The sheer size of the Sierra Nevada brewery cannot be described in words. When you look at the main brewery building from the outside, you immediately notice several huge fermenters ranging in size from 400 barrels to 1600 barrels each (for reference Hi-Wire Brewing produced 2000 barrels of beer LAST YEAR). You might not notice some of the other features Ivy was quick to point out, including giant rain cisterns to collect gray water for irrigation and toilets and solar panels that are capable of producing 1 megawatt of power for the brewery.
Once inside, the level of detail in every aspect of the design becomes apparent. Tiles made of a volcanic rock called basalt line the brewhouse floor amidst giant kettles clad in copper sourced from old German breweries. Overhead, wood reclaimed from the property adorns the ceilings, giving the building a rustic cabin-like feel. All of this is beautiful, but it is in the next room that you get to see the technological mastery.
Every pipe and hose at Sierra Nevada is plumbed in. No one has to disconnect hoses and move them around to perform various jobs as you will see at most breweries. With a couple of keystrokes on a computer keyboard liquids will move along in the process to their destination. With another click of the mouse, the system will clean itself and prepare for its next task. Whoever the plumbing company was on this job deserves every penny they earned. There must be miles of stainless steel plumbing in this building.
As we made our way down the main corridor, we passed the lab facility that helps maintain the quality of Sierra Nevada’s beers. Samples are regularly overnighted between the Mills River facility and the brewery in Chico, and trained tasters make sure the two breweries’ products are consistent. An on-site cryogenic lab maintains the yeast strains that ferment the beers.
Moving on to the packaging line, which unfortunately wasn’t running on a Sunday afternoon, gives you an idea of how much beer this brewery really produces. The bottling line is fully automated, with bottles passing an infrared camera to detect imperfections that might cause a problem before going through a filling process that produces three 12 packs every second. Much of that beer, including Sierra Nevada’s flagship Pale Ale, is bottle conditioned, which means the brewery will store it for another two weeks while it naturally carbonates before shipping it to accounts throughout the eastern half of the country.
The tour finished with a sample of the product that paid for all of this, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, the product that accounts for 70% of the company’s sales each year. Ivy explained that by mid-September the full tours should be running and guests will finish in a special small tasting room built just for tour participants with several Sierra Nevada offerings to sample.
Though many areas of the brewery are still off-limits, I highly recommend taking the “Hard Hat” tour while it’s available. Of course the main tour will be a more polished product, but you’ll never have another chance to walk through the brewery while it’s still under construction. Tours are free, but reservations must be made in advance at: http://www.sierranevada.com/brewery/north-carolina/brewery-tour.