What does it take to turn a homespun craft beer into a national brand?
That’s the question Ken Grossman, president and founder of Sierra Nevada, tackles in his new book, “Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.” In the book, Grossman explains how market differentiation, an obsession with quality, and rapid early hiring grew Sierra Nevada in two decades from a small microbrewery to a powerful brand that produced nearly 25 million gallons of beer in 2012.
When Sierra Nevada was first getting started in 1980 in Chico, Calif., the American brewing scene was dominated by a few big-name brands. “During this depressing and soulless era of the U.S. brewing industry, many struggling smaller breweries must have felt that in order to compete they had to change their beer styles to emulate the lighter, homogeneous style of beer that the national brewers were producing,” Grossman writes.
Unlike most microbreweries, Grossman and his partner, Paul Camusi, realised it was useless to try to break into a market that national companies had already cornered. So instead of following the herd and producing light and bland beer, they set themselves apart by brewing a dark and flavorful recipe.
“We knew that Sierra Nevada would not became a brand people loved if we didn’t turn out beer with a consistently rich and full-bodied flavour profile,” Grossman explains.
Sierra Nevada also was careful to avoid common mistakes made by their fellow home brewers. Grossman, for instance, points out that many early craft breweries would sell beer with an inconsistent taste. To avoid this, he and Camusi committed from the beginning to not selling their product until they knew they could replicate the same flavour in each batch. He set up a small quality lab in the brewery to test ingredients and brews.
They also put in a lot of hours and hard work. Brewing required three lengthy days each week that began at 5 a.m. to produce 30 barrels, followed by two longer days for packaging. In what time remained, Grossman found himself fixing up the salvaged refrigeration equipment he’d bought for production processes. Even with a few part-time employees, he was working seven long days a week without knowing whether the product would take off.
When the team did begin hiring in earnest, Grossman says they went with an “everybody pitches in” model that created a “very flat organizational structure.” There was little emphasis on titles or management positions. The employees who got promoted were the ones who began in production, and even after getting those promotions “they still spent most of their day with their boots on.” The system ensured that employees who came to work for Sierra Nevada actually wanted to be there and were willing to put in the effort.
Looking back on the company’s success, Grossman says Sierra Nevada underwent “truly organic” growth. They scaled with no public relations company or media budget. He and Camusi created their own niche by putting in plenty of time and producing a unique, high-quality beverage.
“Sierra Nevada was a production-focused brewery from the very beginning, not a market-driven one,” Grossman writes. “We brewed what we loved to drink, and it sold.”
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