Like mail carriers or bus drivers, bartenders tend to be working-class people — even the gruff ones with strident opinions on abstruse literary esoterica. So it might be a change of pace to have a billionaire pour you a pint.
That could very well be the case this Saturday at Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp, an eight-city operation that’s billed as the largest craft-beer festival in America, with hundreds of brews available. Ken Grossman, who founded Sierra Nevada in 1978 and whose net worth runs to 10 digits, will be there behind the tap.
“A few people are surprised to see me in that role,” he says. “But I’ve been doing it at as many festivals as I can, since we started the project. Since we’re doing eight of them, I’m going to four and my sons and daughter — who work in the business — are going to four.”
It began a few years ago as a way of celebrating the opening of Sierra Nevada’s second brewery, a facility in Mills River, N.C. Co-presented by the San Francisco Brewers Guild, Beer Camp returns to S.F. as the industry has reached a turning point. There are somewhere around 6,000 breweries nationally, and with the competition growing ever-fiercer, many have concluded that the only way they can prosper is to link arms with corporate giants. (Witness the reaction that popular, six-year-old Asheville, N.C., microbrewery Wicked Weed drew when its founders partnered with the dreaded AB InBev earlier this year.)
Closer to home, Speakeasy Ales & Lagers had a brush with death in March when it briefly ceased production owing to an unsustainable debt load, until a white knight distributor applied a defibrillator. Granted, these incidents hardly constitute an existential, industry-wide emergency. But let’s all agree to over-dramatize it and give ourselves an excuse to drink more excellent beer. To make that task even easier, Beer Camp has thrown in a bonus inducement.
“We’re adding a unique offering from a handful of brewers that’ll be sequenced throughout the event,” Grossman says. “They’ll have a booth pouring their typical beers, and then they’ll also have an area where they’ll have some featured barrel-aged [beers] and sours.”
In other words, you’ll be able to taste more experiments and one-offs from more craft breweries than almost anywhere else. Plus, Grossman says, Sierra Nevada partnered with 12 other breweries — six foreign and six domestic — to create a sort of supergroup 12-pack. But mostly there’s just going to be a ton of beer.
“We extended invitations to pretty much every brewer in the U.S. who wanted to participate in other festivals,” Grossman says.
Apart from Sierra Nevada, there’s strong Northern California representation, from Almanac and Anchor to Wildcard and Woods. Farther away, heavy-hitters like Long Beach’s Beachwood Brewing, and Portland, Maine’s Allagash will be pouring beer, too. (Another Beer Camp event takes place the same day in Maine, so it’s a coup that we got them.) If your craft-beer palate is at sixes and sevens, correct it by hitting up Sixpoint and Seven Stills for some serious IPAs.
Hungry? Food trucks include The Waffle Roast, Curry Up Now, Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, Kabob Job, and others. And there’ll be live music, too, from soul-blues act Hibbity Dibbity and psych-rock collective The Love Dimension.
And it’s all about staying fiercely, proudly independent. Ever the ambassador for the industry which he helped establish, Grossman speaks diplomatically about small brewers’s embrace of the multinationals: “Brewing is a business as well as an artistic pursuit.” But he notes that Sierra Nevada has every intention of staying in Chico, as glad to be free of corporate parents as Chico State freshmen are glad to be free of their biological parents.
“That’s our plan,” he says. “We’re family-owned. It’s just me and my family involved in the ownership, anyway.”
Sierra Nevada Beer Camp, Saturday, June 3, 1-5 p.m., at Pier 48, $40-$75, beercamp.sierranevada.com.