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North Carolina Brewery

Flavor Matching for Mills River: Part 1

Visit our Facebook page to see all of our Mills River construction photos. 

We love the smell of sweet wort in the morning. Finally, brewing is underway at our new Mills River brewery. For many of us, it’s been too long since we’ve had the pleasure of the tangy aroma of hops guiding us into work, but now steam from the kettle stacks greets our arrival.

For us, though, simply making beer isn’t enough; it has to be more than good—it has to be perfect. The act of making beer is only the first step in a long journey to get beer out of our doors in North Carolina.

Brewhouse technology is incredibly complex, and it takes time, technical know-how and more than a little bit of patience to ensure it’s all working properly. Once the equipment is working, we will begin fine-tuning recipes to hit our exacting specifications. After we nail the analytical specs, we further refine the process using the most reliable tools we have for flavor matching: our palates. Nobody knows our beer better than us, so only by tasting and comparing and tasting again can we truly get the beer dialed in.

We christened the brewhouse with a batch of Stout, an homage to the first recipe our founder Ken Grossman used to test his hand-built Chico brewhouse. That brew day—to put it mildly—didn’t go perfectly, but amazingly the beer tasted great. Sadly, that beer was sacrificed to our wastewater treatment plant where the hungry bacteria turned it into valuable methane, so not a drop of beer is dumped in vain. Every hiccup or setback we encounter now helps us perfect the process down the line, and we’ve made great strides in getting everything up to speed. So far, we’ve brewed several batches of Pale Ale and Torpedo that are getting closer to the go-ahead with each round.

The key to matching flavor is eliminating as many variables as possible between the brewhouse in Mills River and our brewhouse in Chico. Some things we can’t change like climate and brewhouse configuration (the brewhouse in Mills River has a different footprint and a shifted workflow). But the biggest variable we can control is ingredients. We’re splitting malt and hops deliveries 50/50 between Chico and Mills River to eliminate variability from batch to batch. We’re working with the same building blocks, so theoretically we can build the same finished beer. One thing that’s been tricky, though, is yeast.

Our Chico yeast is the one resource we can’t buy. Our strain has been in stages of propagation for 33 years and has adapted and developed a unique “house” character. We need that character to carry through if we want our beers to match. We started brewing with kegs of yeast shipped from Chico. Since those early brews, we’ve kept the strain healthy and running, and now we’re getting the unique Chico character we’re looking for here in North Carolina.

You’re likely reading this with one eager question: When will the first batch of beer from North Carolina be available? The answer is as obvious as it is elusive: When it’s ready.

At Sierra Nevada, quality is everything. The brewery’s entire staff maintains a single-minded focus on quality in every aspect of the operation. When it comes to the beer itself, we’ll ensure our two breweries are in lockstep. Whether it takes one month or five, when the time comes to package and ship beer from Mills River, it will be flawless and familiar.