Sierra Nevada Brewmaster

It’s 8 a.m. and Steve Dresler, The Man With the Perfect Job, is tasting the latest batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It’s the first thing he’s consumed since his clock-radio clicked on nearly two hours ago, signaling the beginning of a new work day.

“I don’t eat breakfast to ensure that my taste buds are not confused by food,” he says. “This morning, for example, we bottled five different batches and I tasted them all. It’s extremely important for us to keep sensory tabs on the product.”

Dresler doesn’t argue when someone — almost always a homebrewer — tells him he has a great job. After all, he parlayed a passion for homebrewing and bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry into a position as brewmaster of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., one of the country’s most acclaimed breweries. Dresler, who has been the brewmaster at the Chico, Calif., company since 1985, is the man who develops recipes, oversees the brewing process, and demands that each bottle or keg leaving the brewery must be of top quality.

A typical day for Dresler includes developing recipes; purchasing hops, grain, and other raw materials; checking on the brewery taproom, clean-in-place, cellaring, brewhouse, and packaging operations; and, of course, sensory evaluation. All day long a parade of people from throughout the brewery come to see him and consult over this and that. He doesn’t stay in his office for long.

Dresler’s a true believe in “MWA,” management by wandering around, keeping himself involved and accessible to the team of brewers and scientists he oversees. Okay, maybe Dresler’s job isn’t perfect. He does, after all, have to deal with administrative tasks such as making sure there’s enough beer in the warehouse each day to meet shipping orders and creating a rationing plan for distributors if there’s not. But he doesn’t mind. “I’m more in love with brewing now than I was when I was doing it to supply my own beer habit,” he says. “It’s worth a lot of money to get up in the morning and look forward to going to work.”

A Hoppy Workplace

A short time later Dresler pulls on the door to the Sierra Nevada hops store. It rattles open and an intense, intoxicating aroma bursts out. He walks inside and immediately his breath condenses from the chill. The temperature is just above freezing. Bales of hops fill the room.

Sierra Nevada’s signature has long been the brewery’s aggressive use of hops. Whole hop flowers are used exclusively, no pellets, and though all of the hops are stored here they are evident throughout the brewery; they stick to the brewers’ boots and get tracked all over the building. It’s one of the most charming aspects of Sierra Nevada and a constant reminder that the beers are made in the traditional way.

Dresler is proud of his hops. He spends a lot of time choosing them, buying them, and thinking about them. “Look at that bale,” he says, pointing to a burlap bundle of Saaz imported from the Czech Republic. He’s referring to the grower’s logo, which is stamped with a red wax seal. “I’m going to cut that out and frame it.”

Dresler can talk long and hard about the flavor, aroma, quality, price, and politics of hops. “Much of what’s available is dictated by the big brewers. The growers plant what’s hot — what they know the big brewers are willing to buy. There was a time when Cascades were going out of style and growers were ripping them out. Prices more than doubled,” Dresler says. To guarantee his brewers will have the hops they need, he buys hop futures. Sierra has committed to buy hops through the year 2000.

Dresler has lots of stories about hops. He once decided to brew a batch of English brown ale. He knew he needed Kent Goldings hops but could not get any through his domestic sources. He had them flown in by air freight from England.

Once he decided to brew with green hops instead of the traditional dry product. The recipe was Harvest Ale, made with a blend of unprocessed Centennial and Cascade from Yakima. The hops were in the kettle less than 48 hours after they were harvested. Since green hops are so much heavier than dry, Dresler used nearly 500 pounds compared with the usual 100 pounds needed for a batch at Sierra.

In addition to the classic European hops plus tons and tons of Cascades, the signature hop of the brewery’s flagship Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Dresler also keeps Strissel Spalt, a variety that few other brewers use. “I love Strissel Spalt. It’s one of my favorite hops. It’s from the Alsace region of France and we use it for our wheat beer. On paper the analysis is very close to Saaz. We started using it when Saaz became scarce. But I’ve stuck with it because I really like it. It has a character very different from Saaz and really well suited to our wheat (beer),” he says.

Next stop is the mill room. Actually there are two mills, but the old mill is not used anymore. It’s kept around for emergencies — and for sentimental reasons. It’s an old Peerless, painted white with fancy polished metal identification plates riveted to the case. The new mill is much more austere and unembellished. But what a mill it is. “This is our new Huppmann hydrating mill. As most homebrewers know, milling the malt and doughing into the mash water are usually two separate processes. This mill does both,” Dresler says.

The hot mash water is sprayed into the mill as the malt is crushed. What comes out is not just
grist but temperature-controlled mash. Conversion starts immediately as the mash is piped to the mash tun in the brewhouse. Sticker price: $250,000.

Brewing at Sierra Nevada

The brewhouse resides in a white tiled room with large windows. The surprising thing about this 100-barrel, two-vessel system is that it’s all copper. Not copper-clad stainless, copper. “It was built in the 1960s. We bought it used from Germany,” recalls Dresler. It’s a challenge to clean, since the chemicals commonly used in breweries would eat the copper. Instead, a very light caustic solution is run through the system, then the brewers climb inside and scrub everything down on regular intervals. Old-fashioned elbow grease does the heavy cleaning in the brewhouse.

This 100-barrel brewhouse produces an incredible volume of Sierra Nevada beer. When the brewery first opened in 1980, the owners hoped to reach an annual production of 50,000 barrels. This goal was achieved in the second year of operation. Last year Dresler’s team pumped out 285,000 barrels with boilers fired up around the clock. A quarter-million barrels were sold. “This year we hope to make 325,000 barrels and sell at least 285,000,” Dresler says.

Sierra’s brewers used to make six batches per day, before the addition of a 100-barrel stainless wort receiver. Now the mash tun does not have to wait for an empty boiler, since the wort is held in the new receiver. Production has increased to nearly nine batches per day. The Sierra engineers have also increased the efficiency of the brewhouse by fabricating automation features retrofitted to the old Huppmann brewhouse.

A newer 200-barrel brewhouse is stainless jacketed in copper to maintain the traditional look.

To brew a batch at Sierra, the brewer first consults the recipe sheet and taps a few automation buttons to load the grist box. Then the grain is fed into the mill and the resulting mash is pumped to the mash tun. The brewers mash, lauter, and sparge in the traditional way and wort is sent either to the receiver or the boiler, depending on which is available.

Steam is pumped into the boiler jackets and the wort is heated. While the brewer waits for the boil to begin, he goes to the brewhouse hop store to get his hops. The small brewhouse hop store holds enough hops for a few days of brewing. The entire place is covered in yellow-green lupulin hop residue. The brewer’s shovel has what used to be a white plastic handle. Now it’s green. The hops are stored by variety in large bins. Brewers shovel hops for each addition into the trash cans, weigh them according to the recipe, and bring them out to the kettle.

Back in the brewhouse, the hops are dumped in by hand, the old- fashioned way, according to the recipe schedule. When the boil is complete, the brew is piped to the cooler and assigned to a fermenter for pitching and fermentation. The gear is cleaned and the process starts over again, around the clock.

When fermentation is complete, the beer is filtered and sent to the priming tank where it’s primed with added sugar, just like homebrew. It’s bottled the next day and sent to the warehouse for aging and bottle conditioning, a 14-day process. “Yeast is a natural preservative, an antioxidant, and a biological stabilizer. We bottle condition because it gives us an edge on freshness in the marketplace,” Dresler explains.

Behind the Taproom Wall

Except for those who take the brewery tour, it’s doubtful that the people sipping beer in Sierra’s taproom have any idea what a busy production facility is hidden behind the taproom wall. Th bottling room is enormous and noisy as hundreds of bottles clink their way through the line each minute.

Fermenters are tucked away in nearly every corner of the facility. Most are modern cylindro-conicals, but Dresler’s favorites are the old stainless “Yorkshire Squares” still in use in Sierra’s one open-fermentation room. Here the heady, yeasty aroma of fermenting ale permeates the air above the fermenters, which are too big to look into without standing on a ladder. The room is heavily insulated and refrigerated to keep it at fermentation temperature. This makes it eerily quiet, shielded from the din of the brewhouse and bottling line.

And on the back end of the brewery, handsome Sierra Nevada tractor-trailer rigs pick up finished product for delivery. “We bought our own fleet of trucks a few years ago when it became apparent that hauling it ourselves was more cost effective,” Dresler says. The brewery also has a dock for loading spent grains into dump-trailer trucks, to be hauled away as livestock feed.

Owning a fleet of trucks, and brewing enough beer to fill them, is a big change from Dresler’s early days at Sierra Nevada, where he did odd jobs as one of seven employees (including the owners).

Homebrewer to Brewmaster

Dresler started out like many brewers. He liked imported beer but not the imported price. While finishing his degree at a local university he heard about homebrewing, so he gave it a shot. He enjoyed the process and enjoyed the product.

He liked Chico and stuck around after school, picking up work with a local aircraft parts fabricator. “My background in chemistry helped in the anti-corrosion area,” Dresler explains. “But the aircraft job was seasonal and I got laid off every year. During one of the layoffs, I was able to work in the local homebrew supply store where I had been buying ingredients for a few years. I worked the counter and answered questions, helping the clientele increase their knowledge, especially in microbiology.”

There’s more to the story. The homebrew store had been owned by Ken Grossman, who had recently sold the place and started a brewery in town with his partner, Paul Camusi. That brewery was none other than Sierra Nevada. Before long word made it back to Dresler that the people at the brewery were looking for help. He also learned that they did not have too many people with formal scientific backgrounds.

Dresler’s education helped him land a part-time job in 1982, 14 months after the brewery opened. He did a little of everything, getting a fast education on the product and the professional process. He worked in the lab, on the bottling line, wherever he was needed.

For six months he worked a few days at the airport, then a few days at the brewery, earning $5 an hour. He was comfortable with the arrangement, but his new managers wanted him to join Sierra Nevada full time. “Looking back, it wasn’t that hard of a choice. I was falling in love with the beer business. I was enjoying it not only because of the final product — I love beer — but also because it’s such a creative business,” Dresler says.

Dresler is a big part of Sierra’s success. He knows good beer and he knows how to keep it flowing. But more important, he knows how to let his crew do their thing and stay creative. He never hesitates to give credit to his staff, and they are as excited to be making Sierra Nevada as he is. And why not? After all, isn’t this the perfect job?

Issue: September 1997