Scott Jennings, our Innovation Brewmaster, is a nearly 20-year employee who started in Chico, CA and moved to Mills River, NC to help establish our East Coast brewery. Scott’s always loved our Stout, and in our 40th anniversary year, the beer just won a fresh award. Scott couldn’t help but reflect, and here’s his unedited tribute.
“1979 Stout” is back, here’s the rest of the story.
As far as I know, Ken had worked on the recipe that became the very first beer ever sold under the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. name for years before he brewed the famous “Stout #1” on November the 15th of 1980. It was a Saturday. It was a 5-barrel batch.
I only learned about it 23 years later, when I was in my 3rd year at Sierra Nevada in 2003.
Ken showed me a collection of old spiral-bound notebooks on a shelf in his office when I had asked about some of the old brewlogs from the early days. He grabbed the first one, and turning to the first page, I could not believe what I saw:
This made a huge impression on me, I felt like I was looking at the taproot of what is the greatest and most influential brewery in the modern history of brewing, period. Still to this day I find myself creating a mental image of that day…imagining Ken, on an early Saturday morning alone in the brewhouse that he built with his own hands, steam rising as he adds hops to the kettle with the sun streaming in through the open garage door…
“I felt like I was looking at the taproot of the most influential brewery in the modern history of brewing.”
I have no idea if it was really like that but I would not at all be surprised if it were. Well at least we know from the notes that true to form, our hands-on, dauntless, tireless Founder was back again the next day and the next day and no doubt every day to check on this first batch that made history.
This peek into the past stuck with me and in 2005, for our 25th anniversary, I made a top-secret batch of the original recipe as a surprise for the anniversary party. Who knows how long it had been since that particular recipe was made, as the production Stout had evolved since its inception for sure. It was all I could to do keep it a secret!
It was a 10-barrel batch, which was the smallest production batch we could make at the time, ironically double the size of the original, which was the biggest batch Ken could make at the time. It was also only an approximation of the original, since the hop “Bullion” was no longer grown, and we didn’t have any Brewer’s Gold, so I used Cascade. Other than that it was as original as I could do.
From 2005, we didn’t make it again until the very first brew we did here at the Mills River brewery. I thought it seemed like the right thing to do, as a nod to our roots, so believe it or not the first 800-barrel tank we made here to commission the brewery was the 1979 Stout. That was late September of 2013, I believe. We made 4 brews, and 3 of them made it into the tank, the last brew didn’t make it because the wort cooler heat exchanger exploded, it’s a long story but I guess that’s part of commissioning.
We were super proud that even without completed piping, no automation control, and a host of other serious challenges, the beer fermented perfectly (with yeast shipped out to us from Chico in kegs!), had clean micro, and tasted great. We even used it as the first beer to the bottling line, but sadly we had no labels or registration, so we never sold it.
But by now a tradition was born, and we thought we should always do that recipe when we commission a new brewhouse, exploding heat exchangers or not, and so the next time was a few years later with the Mills River pilot brewery first brew. I guess the beer was a hit, because now we make it only once in a while, even without a commissioning underway, whenever it seems like we need a good stout in the cellar or some other special occasion.
“I find it gratifying, to say the least, that the very origins of our collective professional existence stand up to the test of time.”
And now, here it is again, this time brewed by our very own Matt Ruzich. We just won a medal for it at GABF 2020 (Great American Beer Festival). I have to say I find it gratifying to say the least that almost exactly 40 years later, the very origins of our collective professional existence stand up to the test of time, reminding us not only that we’ve been here awhile, but also that we will persevere because we are built on the foundation and example that Ken laid out for us all those years ago, and we continue to evolve with our visions and values as our guide.
I know Stout is not much of a part of our portfolio nowadays, but what’s behind it is most certainly a part of our everyday working lives and inspiration.
Cheers to 40 years!