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Sierra Nevada CEO Makes East Coast Beer Run

Tickers in this article: SAM

CHICO, Calif. ( MainStreet) -- Sierra Nevada used a whole lot of years and a whole lot of hops building West Coast India Pale Ale from a taproom oddity to a cornerstone of craft brewing. Now it's coming east.

Back in January, Sierra Nevada founder and Chief Executive Ken Grossman announced that his company had bought 90 acres in Henderson County, N.C. -- just beyond the cluster of breweries, bars and beer stores of craft-beer-soaked Asheville -- for a production facility, restaurant and gift shop. It's a nearly $110 million investment that will create about 95 full-time jobs and 80 part-time positions, increase Sierra Nevada's production capacity by nearly a third and expand the brand's presence in the Northeast and Southeast.

Sierra Nevada Brewing CEO Ken Grossman says Sierra Nevada's Asheville, N.C., expansion will yield better beer.

In years, mileage and scope, it's a long way from Grossman's early days of brewing porter and pale ale in a brewhouse cobbled together with dairy tanks, soda bottlers and brewery salvage parts. Grossman was selling home-brewing equipment as early as 1976, but began building his Sierra Nevada Brewery in 1979. His first batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale wouldn't finish brewing until November 1980.

Grossman drew his inspiration from Jack McAuliffe's pioneering craft brewing techniques at the New Albion Brewery opened in 1976 and from Fritz Maytag's revitalization of San Francisco's Anchor Brewery , which he bought in 1965. By the time Grossman got Sierra Nevada off the ground, there were fewer than 50 brewing facilities in the United States and McAuliffe's New Albion was only two years away from shutting its doors.

Today, there are more than 1,900 breweries throughout the U.S. Sierra Nevada has grown from 663,000 barrels worth of production in 2007 to more than 900,000 barrels by the end of 2011. Its flagship Pale Ale has led the charge for much of that stretch with a hoppy IPA bitterness (37 IBUs and relatively mild 5.6% alcohol by volume), but Sierra Nevada has spent the past few years expanding the lineup and cranking up the intensity.

The brewery has begun canning its pale ale and its fast-growing Torpedo IPA -- with 7.2% ABV and a hop-heavy 60 International Bitterness Units (100 is usually the ceiling, though some IPAs claim more) -- and has been dabbling with smaller batches. Its latest offering, the none-too-subtle Hoptimum, is a 10.4% ABV, 100 IBU bitter beast loaded with Magnum, Simcoe, Citra, Chinook and a proprietary Sierra Nevada hop variety.

Though Grossman and Sierra Nevada have shown little sign of letting up, the craft beer world around them has changed dramatically. Maytag left the industry in 2010 after selling Anchor, while the industry itself has experienced double-digit-percentage growth. Sierra Nevada, meanwhile, is now the third-largest craft and regional brewer behind Samuel Adams producer Boston Beer (SAM) and Pennsylvania-based D.G. Yuengling & Sons . Each of those brewers also has large brewing facilities in multiple states.