A little over two years ago, Sierra Nevada opened its East Coast brewery and taproom to the public. Although it may be more accurate to say that, a little over two years ago, beer drinkers were bestowed a little slice of heaven here on earth.
"Little" being relative of course - the 27,000 square foot facility in Mills River, North Carolina (about 17 miles from downtown Asheville) sits on 190 acres, 27 of which is developed.
I've been to the Sierra Nevada taproom a few times, but have never strolled down the Visitors Corridor, which is a raised mezzanine from which you can see the brewhouse, hop cooler, and packaging line. The Corridor also features cool displays, like Bigfoot vintages and antique brewing equipment.
I'm a big fan of raised catwalks above breweries for a variety of reasons. First, it's an easy way to let visitors see parts of brewery operations they may not normally get to see, such as packaging. Second, when you've been on a lot of brewery tours, you don't really need to hear the process of how beer gets made. At this point in my brewery-touring career, I want to be able to wonder around on my own and see the brewery in my own way. The Lagunitas facility in Chicago is another brewery with a fantastic catwalk system.
The Visitors Corridor at Sierra Nevada begins by leading you past the showcase of the tour - the copper brewhouse. My pictures here don't really do it justice. The coppers are huge and shiny and beautiful. I'm one of those people who likes to touch pretty and interesting things (I have a hard time keeping my hands to myself in museums) and I would almost risk falling over the railing of the Corridor just to touch one of the copper kettles. The Beer Geek in the brewhouse - there are Sierra Nevada employees peppered along the Corridor to give visitors information and ask questions - said the brewery employees polish the copper at least twice a week.
The next stop was the bar outside the Hop Cooler. It's hard to describe to someone who has never been to the Mills River Sierra Nevada Brewery how absolutely no expense was spared with this facility. While the family has never disclosed how much the facility cost, estimates are in the hundreds of millions. The details of the facility are where the no-expense-spared becomes apparent. The walls in the bar are actually barrel staves woven together. While we're on the subject of the details, the tiles in the facility are made of volcanic rock. Seriously - No. Expense. Spared.
The next stop was the Hop Cooler, which is appropriately enough where the hops are stored. Again, it is hard to describe how amazing hops smell to someone who has never smelled hops. It is ambrosial. The air in and around the Hop Cooler is thick with fresh, citrusy, green, piney, resiny hop aromas. I'm against perfumes or colognes in general, but I would buy hop perfume if someone made it. Actually, I'm guessing someone probably does, so maybe an I Tried It: Hop Perfume is in my future. Like wanting to risk falling over the railing in the brewhouse to touch the coppers, I pondered whether the hop bales below me would break my fall if I dove into one of them like they were a freshly-raked pile of leaves.
The Corridor ends at the packaging and warehouse facility. Hundreds of thousands of Sierra Nevada bottles were marching down the packaging line when I was there, which had a very mesmerizing and meditative effect on me. Watching a packaging line is definitely more interesting from above than on the ground. And no, they wouldn't let me reenact the opening sequence of Laverne and Shirley. You know I asked. NBD, I got to reenact it at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee a couple years ago.
There are several different types of tours available at Sierra Nevada, some of which sell out very quickly. However, the Visitors Corridor is free, doesn't require a reservation, and is available most of the time the brewery is open to the public. It's hard to decide what to do on the grounds of the brewery because there is just so much to see and do, but I definitely recommend taking time to wander the Visitors Corridor. Just try not to touch anything because someone probably just cleaned it.