Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has come a long way from the early days when Ken Grossman, founder of the Chico, Calif.-based craft brewery, first began

NC brewery Sierra
Sierra Nevada’s Mills River, N.C., facility is being completed in four phases. The first phase, brewing and bottling, was completed in February, and the rest are scheduled to be finalized throughout this year and 2015. (Image courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.)

experimenting with homebrewing. After 34 years in business and countless expansions, the company is on the heels of completing its latest adventure: an East Coast facility.

“Sierra Nevada has been nearing capacity for a number of years, and with continued growth with no signs of slowing, it became clear to us that we would have to expand to keep up with demand,” says Bill Manley, beer ambassador for Sierra Nevada. “Our business in the eastern half of the U.S. is robust and growing, and the realities — both environmental and from a cost and freshness perspective — of shipping beer from California to markets in the East made choosing a location east of the Mississippi River the best option.”

Located in Mills River, N.C., the new brewery is 230,000 square feet and operates at a full brewing capacity of approximately 350,000 barrels a year, Manley says. However, the current footprint is expandable up to 600,000 barrels, he adds. It will produce the brand’s Pale Ale, Torpedo Extra IPA and seasonal varieties, as well as some specialty products for the western North Carolina market. A small 20-barrel pub brewery system also will be in place to develop specialty beers and barrel-aged products, Manley notes.

But setting out on this East Coast expansion was not a simple feat. The company wanted a location that captured similar elements of its Chico home base.

“When we decided to expand, we began scouting hundreds of potential sites in the eastern half of the U.S.,” Manley explains. “We wanted to find someplace that would make it easy to maintain the unique family-like culture that we’ve cultivated in Chico, Calif., so we were looking for places with a similar feel and vibe as our base. Of course, we had a practical list of ‘must haves’ — good water, access to shipping, ease of material transport, etc. — but we also had a longer list of intangibles: access to the outdoors, affordable housing, good music, [and] good schools.

“We wanted to do everything in our power to maintain that lifestyle that people in Chico are accustomed to,” he continues. “In essence, to build a satellite that would be much like California.”

After years of research, the company selected its Mills River property, which is located on a semi-rural forested hilltop about
16 miles from Asheville, N.C.

Process of completion

To ensure a smooth transition to the Mills River facility, Sierra Nevada is opening the brewery in four phases.

Phase one includes its brewing and bottling operations, which have been in effect since February. “We began brewing and shipping to market starting this past February,” Manley says. “We are still not running at full speed, but we expect to be at a fast pace by mid-summer at the latest.”

The next phase will be the start of limited tours for facility visitors, including tastings of special beers in its tasting room and a stop at the gift shop. Manley notes that the company hopes for this to start in August.

Phase three will be the completion of its taproom and restaurant, including an outdoor patio, fire pit and gardens. These are slated to open in mid-November, he adds.

The fourth and final stage will encompass the Chico culture of which Manley spoke fondly. “We will have an outdoor stage and an indoor entertainment venue, which will host live music,” he says. “Additionally, we hope to build a system of hiking and biking trails on the property and a kayak landing from the French Broad River, all of which are slated for 2015.”

Manley adds that the planning and building of the Mills River facility benefits from the growing pains that Sierra Nevada has experienced throughout the years while trying to balance supply and demand.

“Our Chico facility is the product of more than three decades of expansion and growth done in pieces over time,” he explains. “As such, there are difficulties in beer handling and material handling and also flow in and around the brewery. The Mills River site was built with the gift of hindsight, knowing what styles of beer we make and the challenges we discovered in California over time.”

This knowledge allowed the company to construct an efficient layout for Mills River. Manley adds that both of its breweries are similar, but each has its own strengths.

Consistent core values

As much as consumers have come to enjoy Sierra Nevada’s hop-forward beers, the company also has been associated with its commitment to sustainability. At its Chico facility, the company has installed fuel cells, solar panels and much more to support environmentally friendly production processes. That same mentality is being applied in North Carolina.

“In Mills River, we are doing many similar energy creation practices to those we do in Chico,” Manley says. “We have nearly 2,200 solar panels, which will generate 710 kilowatts of power, and two methane-powered gas turbines, which will use the byproduct of wastewater treatment to generate nearly 300 kilowatts of additional power. Combined, we will generate nearly 1 megawatt of power on-site.”

Manley adds that the company is investing in worker health and safety, transportation, conservation and energy consumption practices to help it achieve LEED Silver certification.

In addition to its sustainable practices, Sierra Nevada expects the new facility to help reach its consumers on the East Coast with the best products it can supply.

 “The Mills River brewery will get beer to our customers in the East fresher and better than we could hope to from California,” Manley says. “It will provide some much-needed relief to the capacity-strapped California brewery and will position us well for future growth opportunities. Having Mills River fully online will allow for more flexibility in the products we bring to market, and it will be a valuable tool to push the growth and innovation that Sierra Nevada has been famous for.”  

Getting to know the Mills River, N.C., facility

> Size: 230,000 square feet on 180 acres of wooded property

> Capacity: 350,000 barrels a year currently; 600,000 barrels a year potential

> Lines: 1 bottling line operating at 1,000 bottles a minute; canning line to be installed at a later date

> Hours: Operating a two-shift model; expandable to 24/7 if necessary

> Beers produced: Pale Ale, Torpedo Extra IPA and seasonal beers; specialty products for local markets