A Talk with the Iconic Man Behind the Brewing Vats at Sierra Nevada as His Luminous Career Comes to a Close

The name Steve Dresler is iconic in the craft brewing industry, for he has spent the last three and a half decades turning out a myriad of award-winning brews from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, which itself is a pioneer of modern day brewing. This summer Dresler’s long and luminous career with Sierra Nevada will come to a close as he steps away into retirement. Just three days after the 34th anniversary of his first day of work at Sierra Nevada Brewing and during a recent stop in Las Vegas, we met up at the new beer-centric gastropub Bailiwick at the Orleans, and talked about topics ranging from his favorite hops, his long history with the brewery and what he plans to do after his retirement this summer.

You have become an iconic figure at the Sierra Nevada brewery. How did you first become associated with Owner Ken Grossman? Can you also tell us about the early days at the brewery and what led to you becoming the Brewmaster?

I began homebrewing in 1979 and met Ken at his homebrew shop where I purchased my supplies. Years later, after he had started the brewery, on January 9, 1983 he hired me to work part time on the packaging line. In April, they were expanding and needed someone to help brew on Saturdays so I said I’d take that shift and that’s how I got my foot in the door of the brewhouse. At that time we only had five on the payroll besides Ken and including part time people, about 10-12 and we all did everything, whatever was needed. At that time there was no brewing equipment for small brewereries so everything we had was used dairy equipment and we were doing five barrel batches. It was very manual, as you can imagine. Two years later, in 1985, I was promoted to Brewmaster. We had a limited inventory of Pale Ale, Porter, Stout, Celebration Ale and Big Foot and stayed with that lineup till we expanded in 1988-1989. Then we began brewing more styles, such as Pale Bock, Summerfest, and expanded our seasonal line and opened a taproom in 1990.

Did your science degrees from Chico State help prepare you for your work as a commercial brewer?

I have degrees in biology and chemistry and had some microbiology knowledge, so the background science helped a lot in understanding the process and chemistry helped a lot with mashing, knowing the enzymatic process. But for me, I love beer and creativity so for me it was mainly more on the passion side than the science side.

How did you keep the Sierra Nevada beers true to its roots as you ramped up to huge quantities?

A lot of that was Ken, family ownership and his philosophy. He got into it because he loved beer and never got into it to make money. As we got bigger, we just maintained everything the same. Quality was the most important thing and that doesn’t change no matter how much you grow.

Why did Sierra Nevada choose to exclusively use whole cone hops?

At the time, Ken wanted as few inputs as possible and to use raw materials in their purest form. Up until a few years ago we used 100% whole cone hops, and 90-95% of the time we still do, but now also use more modern hop products, including lupulin powder and hop oil made from wet hops directly from the field.

What are some of the hops the brewery uses today that you are a fan of that weren’t available back in the 1980s, and what do you like about them?

There are dozens. I like aroma hops and when I started most of the aroma hops were European types with little to no citrus, and ones we had to choose from were Tetnang, Galena, Cluster; and Cascade, which was our bread and butter and our Pale Ale was all Cascade. Ones I like now are Simcoe, which has nice bittering and aroma qualities; Citra, which is very aromatic; Mosaic for its coconut and fruit; Centennial, which has the nicest rose aroma; and we always want to try something new, so a lot of experimental hops, which just have #s, no names yet. One I really like lately is Comet, which was around in the 60s but fell out of favor; I like its aromatics and fruitiness.

Under your direction, Sierra Nevada has won eight World Beer Cup awards and 31 GABF medals. In addition to that huge accomplishment, what else are you most proud of that took place during your tenure as Brewmaster?

I’m not one to toot my own horn. I’ve had a fantastic career. I’m very proud of the beers I’ve been able to create, my position in the industry and that I have made so many great friends. Almost 20 years ago we were the first to brew a wet hop beer, and I’m really proud of the last few years the Belgian beers we’ve been doing, some wonderful barrel aged beers and now a sour program.

Do you have favorite beers that you’ve brewed over the years?

I like the Northern Hemisphere and the English-style Brown Ale that we had in our taproom in 1990 and still occasionally do. The Brown Ale was the first beer that was my own, other than the Sierra Nevada line-up.

What are some of your favorite beers and beer styles you like to drink?

It depends on what I’m doing. With spicy food I like something hoppy, our Ovilla Quad goes great with pasta and our Pale Ale is good with everything. In the summer I gravitate to lighter beers like our Pilsner, Vienna Lager and Saison. But I’ll try anything and like to play around a little bit.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is considered by many as the benchmark for what an American Pale Ale should taste like. Is it the same recipe as when it was first brewed in the 1980s?

It’s virtually the same by about 95% plus. A few years ago we augmented its aroma with a small amount of Chinook hops, instead of 100% Cascade, to give it a bit more complexity.

How do you think the American beer palate has changed since you first began brewing and what styles of beer do you predict will be the most popular in future years?

It’s changed in every direction possible. There was virtually no craft when I started brewing, just a few like Anchor Steam in San Francisco and New Albion in Sonoma, and Americans were mostly used to import lagers, which were a bit more flavorful than domestic lagers at the time. Pale Ale, it took people a while to get over the flavor barrier they were not used to. Sour beers are now popular and will be well sought out, but I don’t think they will ever be big because I think it’s very esoteric and will have its own niche. IPA is still a craze that’s amazing to me, which is the last think I would have expected.

What are your plans for after your retirement this summer?

After I retire on July 1 I’ll take time to relax. My wife and I plan on domestic traveling, long road trips and camping in the Pacific Northwest. There’s so much to see and I realize I’ve seen so little of it.

What advice would you give to your successor and has it been determined yet who it will be?

It’s still in the process, but getting close. Advice I would give is stay true to your heart; take advantage of the great place to come into and incredible brewing heritage, great standards of quality, a fantastic staff and wonderful work environment; and just enjoy the things you’re being given an advantage to play with.