Sierra Nevada: The Craft Beer Pioneers
Personally, one of my most fulfilling podcast recordings this first season was my conversation with Ken Grossman – founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co – and his son Brian Grossman, the current operator of this family-owned industry leader. We recorded the episode shortly after my father retired from a long career, which I have posted about previously. Having the opportunity to talk with this family dynasty, which crafted an entirely new sector, on the heels of my conversations with family, was particularly special.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. – like the mountains that are its namesake – has long been a place where pioneers have made an impact. Founder Ken Grossman is one such innovator. His story is a masterclass in entrepreneurship as he’s turned a small home-brewing operation into a national beer brand worth over $1 billion. In terms of the total volume of barrels sold in the US, Sierra Nevada currently ranks 3rd among craft brewers and 10th in the beer industry, producing over 1.1 billion units.
Some of the business lessons from my father seem similar to lessons shared between Ken and Brian. Here are a few takeaways – a confluence of coaching from fathers to sons:
- Stay True: Throughout this remarkable growth, Sierra Nevada has never sacrificed the organization’s values, community-driven culture, or founding principles of environmental stewardship. This is something I watched my father practice – no matter the project or team or customer, or company, he was steadfast in his core values; he treated his colleagues as a team and kept a long-term view of success. Winning the battle didn’t matter if the war a decade later would be lost.
- Growth Mindset: Yes – it is cliche, but when starting a company, hard work is just as important as industry knowledge – if not more. Ken entered the beer industry without prior knowledge and learned as he went. His “hustle” and intense work ethic set him apart. At the beginning of his operation, Ken needed access to state-of-the-art hardware. He had to build his brewhouse from the ground up, driving around the West Coast in search of recycled dairy machinery that he could convert into brewing equipment. This process was difficult, but Ken’s work ethic and ingenuity helped him rise to the occasion.
- Stay Nimble: To achieve maximum growth potential in a competitive market, finding a niche is incredibly important. An entrepreneur’s product must be unique regardless of industry. This quality will differentiate your idea from existing ones and help you tailor your product to a loyal base of specific customers. Ken noticed that most established beer brands were producing a nuanced light lager, so there were limited options for consumers seeking a bolder flavor. As a result, Ken developed a distinctively hoppy pale ale. 90% of beer drinkers didn’t understand the extreme taste, but a passionate 10% couldn’t get enough. He found his niche (and eventually educated and expanded that niche in the course of inventing a sector), and the rest is history.
- Ideate And Evaluate: Once your business becomes successful, don’t rest on your laurels. Constant ideation is essential to maintain a strong market position. By the late-2010s, Sierra Nevada was a prominent leader in the beer industry, but the team understood that consumers’ tastes are constantly evolving. As a result, they developed the Hazy Little Thing IPA, which catered to a newer crowd of craft beer enthusiasts. The firm’s commitment to innovation helped them maintain their place at the top of the industry, and Hazy Little Thing currently enjoys widespread popularity, being Sierra Nevada’s best-selling draft product.
PS: If you want to learn more about how the company continues to set the standard for sustainable brewing, watch our Made In America episode about Brian’s innovative Asheville facility and listen to my podcast.