Steve Dresler, Sierra Nevada’s Brewmaster, Reflects on His Career and the Industry’s Future

Last Call by | Jun 2017 | Issue #125
Art by Nathan Arizona

There’s no environment Steve Dresler loves more than a brewery—from the copper domes and tile floors of Sierra Nevada’s 20th Street brewhouse in Chico, Calif., to the way the yeast and hop aromas waft from room to room. But it wasn’t all copper and tile when he started out in 1983, packing cases of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale part time. Dresler went on to help lead the company from 2,000 barrels a year to over a million. As he prepares to retire this year, Dresler says leaving is bittersweet. “There’s so much about my job that I will miss,” he says. “I’m looking forward to exploring new opportunities, but [I’m] eternally grateful for what I’ve had the opportunity to do.”

What did you expect from the job when you first signed on in 1983?
Not what I got, I’ll be honest about that. Small breweries in general, they just didn’t exist. It was something that we were having a good time doing, we were passionate about, and it was exciting and creative, but I don’t know that we ever thought that it would be as successful.

What are some of your favorite memories from that time?
My first day on the job I will never forget. I came in, I’m getting to know a few people, I’m packing beer into boxes. We got to a point where everybody looked at each other, took a break, and went outside to smoke a joint—but I got left behind because nobody knew me yet. So I figured at that point in time that I could probably hang out there pretty well.

The staff was so small that for the longest while we would do a monthly potluck at somebody’s house. It was a great working environment. We would get done and you wouldn’t go home, you’d sit and have a couple beers with people. It was just a very fun, casual environment with a lot of really passionate people.

Being the new kids on the block, we were kind of inventing things. There weren’t beers available like ours. We were using brand-new raw materials, we were trying to develop pathways for distributorship for small breweries. There were so many firsts. … It was a kick.

What are some achievements you’re most proud of?
When we commissioned our brewhouse here on 20th Street in 1987. That was very exciting because we were taking that big step forward. … And when we did the first wet-hop beer in the US more than 20 years ago, [we were] basically the first to do a whole new style of beer. That was a true highlight of my career, as well.

Do you have any regrets?
Not really. If I were to regret anything, I wish that I had saved more things. I wish I had more pictures. I wish I had kept some of the old records. You could say this about anything that was enjoyable, but I wish I had been more in the moment at times.

What are some of the critical issues facing the industry right now?
I think one of the biggest issues is to ensure that people stay true to their ideals and make really good, quality beer. Sometimes when you get in a hurry or you just want to expand your production, there’s a temptation to cut corners, and I think that could be an issue. I love that there are this many breweries in the country, as long as they’re making great beer.

What’s your take on breweries consolidating?
I’m not in a position to comment too much on other people’s business strategies or motivations. But it is an issue. … I think it’s up to the consumer to dictate how important it is for them to know the specific origin of their beer.

Where do you see the industry going in the next five to 10 years?
I think there’s going to be a continuation in the number of breweries. It will be interesting to see where people go with different flavors and different brewing styles. … I think there will be continued levels of consolidation … maybe more small brewers combining their efforts, and working together and sharing facilities.