We’re celebrating 40 years as a brewery. No better time to ask founder Ken Grossman about the past, the future, and how pain caves and Death Rides are somehow good things.
Uncensored excerpts – February 5, 2020
At quite a young age, I decided I wanted my own welder. So I convinced my mom to get me one for my 14th birthday, instead of a Pendleton shirt like she got my brother.
I was fortunate that I had a junior high school that had an extensive shop program, which they don’t have at junior high level much anymore. It had a foundry, it had a machine shop, it had a small-engine course you could take during summer school to learn how to fix lawnmowers and mill heads and all that kind of stuff.
One of our projects was make a screwdriver. And so you’d have to take the steel you were going to use for the screwdriver blade and form it, grind it, and then harden it. So it was heated up to a certain temperature and [you] quench it a certain way. And then you would take that piece and put it in the sand-casting mold, and you would cast a handle. And then you’d take the handle and put it in the lathe. … I mean, you had to do the whole thing as a 14- or 15-year-old.
I rebuilt my brother’s Austin Healey transmission, had a bad bushing and gear. Did that before I was old enough to drive. So [at] 15, pulled the transmission and put new bearings and bushings in it.
I built a small studio that I moved into in my mom’s backyard, so I got the building permit and went through all that. Called it The Backhouse.
I remember the concrete guy shows up and there’s like four of us 15-year-olds and, you know, no parents around or anything. … And so he stayed around and helped us finish—at least get the concrete down and level.
My next-door neighbor told me the new owners moved The Backhouse, actually put it on—you know like they move houses?—and he’s got pictures of them lifting the thing up and moving it somewhere. I don’t know where it went.
I think I had about enough credits to graduate if I would’ve stayed in one discipline. I studied a fairly esoteric bunch of classes.
There are so many resources today, particularly that are available online: books, articles, talking to people, forums.
I don’t know that school is a requirement. I think for some people, it’s what forces them to do the work and thinking. But if you’re, you know, if your constitution drives you to do that on your own, you don’t need to go to school to get the education.
We were out of money for our 5th time or 12th time or whatever and had gone to family and friends and it was like, ‘We just need another $5,000 and that’s it.’ And we had done that like two or three times. We were embarrassed to keep going back and saying, ‘We misjudged,’ and things kept popping up.
And the coils were all filled with dried blood and feathers. And I’m cleaning it out and I’m thinking, you know, this sucks, this is really low that we’ve got to go do s**t like this and spend two days fixing this $50 thing.
God, the bike shop would be so much simpler and easier. … I could do that, but then I would have never known if I could’ve pulled off building a brewery.
Back then, probably Hendrix. I was a big Hendrix fan. I saw him play live back when I was growing up. I was at The Forum for the Hendrix show when he did the Star-Spangled Banner.
We used to play it in the bottle shop, and I would occasionally just shut it down just because you need to listen to equipment and you can’t hear if somebody’s yelling at you.
I think I was pretty focused and driven on the process side. And I guess felt that, you know, lead by example. But I didn’t consciously think I’m the leader and you guys, here’s what you need to do.
There’s plenty of of things I’m sure people can criticize me for. If it’s warranted, then I take it to heart and take it seriously. If it’s a flippant and not accurate, then I’m probably more miffed.
I mean, it’s our company. It’s our employees. It’s our reputation. It’s our future. So no, I don’t really ever think It’s just beer.
Forty years ago I was nose to the grindstone and figuring out how to survive and build the business to a point where it could be a real business. Cause it wasn’t a real business in the beginning.
I think today, focusing on how to make the business more resilient and how to position ourselves to compete in this marketplace is my focus.
Right now I’m cycling. That seems to be working pretty well. I’ve tried just about everything. And then recently I’ve been playing with meditation podcasts, kind of relaxation stuff.
It’s easy to come up with excuses why not to go do something. Cycling involves pain and suffering. Especially for an old guy. So I tried to eliminate all the obstacles, so I’ve got a great trainer set up and I mounted a TV sort of down low. I did it this morning at 5:30. I’m watching an international cooking series, you know, grinding away and I’ve got wireless headphones.
I cook everything.
This year I made individual Beef Wellington. So if the people who wanted them more well-done and more rare, we could pull some out early and cook some longer.
She was a midwife. And so when we first started the brewery, she was still delivering babies and that didn’t work very well cause she, you know, it’s an unpredictable thing. So I was going in for a brew at 4:00 a.m. and she got a call at 3:30, somebody’s in labor. Trying to find childcare. And that’s when we had one kid.
Brian and Sierra I think tell the story, a lot of times they would come to see me at work just because I was here six, seven days a week.
We would play pretty hard, too. We went camping and went to the coast and [abalone] diving and all that kind of stuff.
Oh, grandparenthood is pretty fun. We’ve got five grandkids now, and there’s times we take all five of them and babysit. My wife’s a lot more patient with that than me.
I’d say it’s an unexpected amount of growth in the industry. I guess if I was a little more clairvoyant, I would have seen, well, the wine industry sort of went through that same thing and there’s 10,000 wineries today.
There’s a lot of brewers who are trying to figure out what their futures look like and…if their business model is one that was built on requiring growth to survive, they may not be able to achieve that.
It’ll be different five years from now than it is today. Different competitive pressures and different players.
If I was going to start a brewery now, it would be completely different than how Sierra Nevada is or grew to. It would be probably a little localized pub or maybe something closer to what a Russian River is doing, with sort of an eclectic group of beer styles.
The reality is I’ve done what I’ve done and I’m not going to go—the business model can’t be changed. You know, Sierra Nevada can’t be a cute little 10,000-barrel brewery again.
I’ve been drinking alcoholic and non-alcoholic kombuchas for some time. Non-alcoholics, certainly. I’ve liked some of them. I’ve probably not loved too many of them. I have disliked some of them. Then I think where we ended up with Strainge Beast, it ended up being really great. We’re still tweaking things a little bit, but the team has done a really fantastic job of coming up with really nice flavor and balance.
As long as the product has some providence and reason for being and resonates with who we are, I’m open to playing around.
[When] I had the homebrew shop, I actually made a lot of wine and sold wine grapes. And I had a still and fooled around with sake. So I had a fairly open mind toward fermentation back in the very early years as well.
I was just at a grocery store the other day and the cashier is like, ‘Have you been in the movies?’ And then he says, ‘Oh, I know who it is. You’re the guy from the brewery.’
I gotta just roll with the punches. I’m thankful for what we’ve helped nurture as far as beer and the brewing industry.