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Brewery Highlight: Sierra Nevada North Carolina Edition

The Smoky Mountains roll through western North Carolina with snow-capped peaks and hundreds of miles of hiking trails. During the winter, ice clings to low lying branches as streams carve their way through this ancient mountain range. The small town of Mills River sits just a few miles outside of Asheville, in the heart of the Smokys. It is in this beautiful mountain town that Sierra Nevada decided to open their second home.
Towering over a solar-paneled parking lot, the brewery and tap room make for an impressive display. 28 massive fermenters erupt through the ceiling, allowing the facility to produce 40% of the company’s total production. Just one of their 1,600 barrel fermenters would keep you full of 10 beers a day for over 100 years. To the side of the building are several huge water catches, part of Sierra Nevada’s sustainability initiative.

Upon entering the taproom, several large copper kettles line the walk to one side, while a barrel room sits on the other. Mouth watering aromas radiate from their kitchen as plate after plate of chicken wings, po boys, and duck fat fries emerge. It is clear from the quality of the food that the Mills River chefs are working directly with local farms to get the freshest ingredients possible.  

Unlike the original location in Chico, CA, Mills River was designed all at once (a perk of having some cash up front), and every detail was planned to perfection. A major benefit of this forethought is that when the doors opened in 2014, the impact on the environment was massively reduced. Sierra Nevada Mills River is the first commercial brewery in the United States to receive a platinum ranking in the LEED certification. Through environmentally conscious construction, the brewery produces 34% of its energy needs on site, diverts 81% of its waste from landfills, and reduces potable water consumption by 40%.
The Mills River location offers a variety of eye opening, hands on tours for the most hardcore beer geeks out there. The Heritage Tour starts with a brief history of the brewery and its owner, Ken Grossman. After watching a brief clip (with some SN Pale Ale in hand of course), the tour follows the brewing process. The first stop is a look at the pipes and a discussion on water. The water is so much softer in North Carolina than northern California that brewers add minerals to ensure that a Bigfoot made in Mills River tastes the exact same as one made in Chico. The grain mill is on site and handles the needs of the entire production facility. From there it is into the hop fridge where massive bins hold a variety of hops, including Chinook, Cascade, Equinox, and Citra. Guests are encouraged to break apart, smell and rub the cones on their hands, releasing acids and essential oils.
After leaving the cooler with a little humulus high, it is on to the kettle room. Huge copper chimneys rise right out of the kettles and out into the open air. As hot mash is mixed in four copper kettles, wort is passed around and tasted. For those who have never had the pleasure of enjoying this unique stage in the brewing process, it is a bit like sweet oatmeal with tinged with funky banana.
The second to last stop on the tour is a view overlooking the bottling line, a mass of conveyor belts and elevators. The line, a masterpiece of construction, is able to wash, fill, label, and package over 900 bottles every minute with incredible precision. Finally, the group gathers around a bar to taste through Sierra Nevada’s entire year round line-up (with something special as well.)
A quick stop by the gift shop acts as a final farewell. Make sure to get loaded up with swag and check the refrigerator in the back for some specialty brews. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Trip in the Woods series. Barrel Aged Otra Vez and Red Wine Barrel Aged Bigfoot is the tip of the iceberg for what you might find behind those lovely glass doors.

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