It was all supposed to be kept secret.
For the past two years, California-based Sierra Nevada has been building its new East Coast brewery on 180-acres of rolling land situated in a crook of the French Broad River in Mills River, about a half hour south of Asheville. Record-setting rain last summer put Sierra Nevada’s building plans severely behind schedule.
Brian Grossman, the head of Sierra Nevada’s operation here, doesn’t like to show off projects that are half done. Still, he had committed to giving a tour to attendees of a recycling conference set nearby, thinking the brewery would be complete. Grossman stuck to giving the tour.
An odd thing happened with the recycling conference. An inordinate number of beer journalists were signing up, knowing they could get a first look at what was coming together in Henderson County. So Sierra Nevada hastily arranged Monday’s tour for local media.
What Grossman revealed was a massive manufacturing operation still under construction but coming together. The manufacturing site includes sprawling warehouses, a lab filled with glass beakers, towering tanks and long lines for fermenting, filling and packaging the hundreds of thousands of cans and bottles that will be produced in Mills River.
The beer-making operation shows off Sierra Nevada’s eye for efficiency and sustainability. It is laid out in a linear fashion that follows the making of beer. There are hundreds of solar panels atop the giant warehouses, and the brewery draws some energy from recaptured methane. There are no light switches in the warehouses – sensors control the lighting.
One other note about the construction of the brewery – it is designed and built with a second upper level specifically for public tours. Visitors will enter and be looking down at all the key points along the tour.
The brewery sits on a chunk of rolling land just south of the Asheville Regional Airport. Grossman said that bears, deer and turkey are regulars on the property. Sierra Nevada employs an entomologist, forest resources managers and arborist to help manage the natural resources. On Monday, some of that crew was cleaning up downed limbs and other tree litter following 50 mph winds on Sunday.
The site has also been put together with an eye for tourists. Sierra Nevada’s brewing operation will be complemented by a tasting room, pub, restaurant, outdoor amphitheater and another outdoor area for big events. Bike and hiking trails are a possibility, and there’s access of the river. A “plunge pool” near the river has already been built, Grossman said. With a host of different tours – sustainability tours, beer geek tours, business development tours, VIP tours – the site expects to see about 100,000 visitors a year.
Grossman said the site won’t likely be fully open to the public until November. There are already rumors of an event being planned to celebrate the opening of the tasting room in June or July, but Grossman declined to confirm any plans.
Sierra Nevada is on pace to brew about 350,000 barrels of beer in Mills River currently, with plenty of room for a gradual increase and expansion. The company’s Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA are already being made in Mills River, and specialty beers will be next. The operation dwarfs the size of Asheville’s Highland Brewing, the biggest of Asheville’s craft breweries.