Hobo Goes To Beer Camp

Sierra Nevada Beer Camp, something I heard about passing through Chico, a name I'd seen branded on delicious bottles of beer - something I'd finally get to experience first hand.

From what I understood Beer Camp was a two or three day experience at their brewery in Chico where a group of campers would get a sort of tour on steroids, drink heaps of delicious beer and ultimately brew a beer of their choosing right there in the brewery, all expenses paid to get there, stay there and enjoy the delicious food and brews they had.

In order to get in there was a contest, a video submission less than two minutes in length that would be voted on by the public and employees, about a couple dozen winners would get the Willy Wonka esque experience they dreamed of.

So, after years of hearing about it, I went for it. I got my friend Aaron on board too, we both submitted our videos somewhere around August or September of 2013 with high hopes of going to camp that coming December.

I could practically taste the beer... in fact I did taste plenty of their beer as I was coincidentally in and out of town for part of September and October during the pot harvest. Every day I'd watch the votes tally up... it seemed grim, though, dozens of other videos where beating us by an almost unbelievable amount of votes.

Alas, the day after Halloween I'd finished up on the farm outside of Chico with the good news - we hadn't gotten the popular public vote, but each of our videos had been voted in by the employees themselves. We were going to Beer Camp!

I had the whole month of November to wait and fill in with tripping around California, trying not to stray all to far from the motherland.

I hitchhiked down to Sacramento first, buzzing from the good news and feeling flush after the harvest, eager to celebrate with Aaron. I spent about a week there, we drank the best beers we could and during the week brewed three different batches of beer on his homebrew system.

A group of us headed out to Beressa, California where we spent the day hiking around the lake and then, of course, capped the day with a trip to the brewery there.

Afterwards they drove back to Sacramento, dropping me off on the road so I could hitchhike my way up to Chico. It got dark quickly and I found myself getting frustrated with all the cars passing me up, but a breath of perspective settled me down, with that came one ride, then another and finally a final ride from an mechanic straight to my friends' house in Chico. Around back the fire ring was blazing, a keg of Sierra Nevada was flowing and some beer I'd previously brewed was ready to be popped amongst the circle of familiar friends and new faces at their party.

I stayed a few more days in town, brewed another batch of beer on this particular friend's homebrew system of course, but with plenty of time until December, I hopped right back on the road again.

I headed east this time, up hill to Quincy to visit a friend there, it seemed fitting that an engineer working on Sierra's new North Carolina facility was one of the people who picked me up along the way.

I spent a few relaxing days there, the highlight was getting to fly over the area in my friend's little plane, taking off from the tiny airport in town and buzzing over the mountains, the kind of unexpected awesome that keeps me on the go.

I thought about going to Grass Valley next to see a friend there, but before seeing her I hitched back to the farm I'd been on. I spent just one night there, a big reason for that was that three IPAs I'd previously brewed had been bottled and were now fit to drink. I felt like I was leading myself up to beer camp quite nicely.

I hitched via several rides on an easy day to Grass Valley where my friend picked me up in town, taking me back to where she was living now. She too was growing pot like so many in Northern California, I volunteered to help with her harvest, although this was much more casual and minimal.

I spent a few days intermittently trimming, watching stupidly as her and her friends tried their best at teaching each other to twerk, then culminating in a psychedelic night at a dance party in town sparked by a small cracker passed to me in a little bag that twisted the night in glowing off-patterns, hopeful wandering and slipping through silly dimensions as dictated by a house cat. It happens.

Soon I was back in Sacramento, it only took two rides from Grass Valley, back at Aaron's place I was drinking homebrew in the garage, all was right in the world. His mom ended up generously offering me a train ticket down to Southern California where I planned to meet some family for Thanksgiving, I gladly accepted her offer and saved myself some hitching.

The "train ticket", as Amtrak goes, ended up being a bus to Fresno, a train to Bakersfield and another bus to Union Station in LA. From there I was a short subway ride to Hollywood where I stayed at my sister's place. We picked up some family at the airport the next day, cruised down towards the San Diego to my brother's in time for Turkey day, chowed, caught up and the rest of it.

After all this, an LAX airport drop off, my sister got me north of LA to Santa Clarita to begin hitching north back towards Beer Camp, now only days away. Amazingly I would stick my thumb out once, it took just one ride to get from there to Aaron's driveway back up in Sacramento.

The guy who picked me up worked for some missile defense system company, he lived in Manteca, when we were getting close he offered to let me stay the night with promise of getting me up to Sacramento in the morning. I thought about it for just a few minutes and then went for it. It was an easy night, he cooked and kept wine glasses full while I relaxed. It wasn't until later in the night that I suspected he perhaps wanted something more out of the night, he never pushed the issue, but a few comments here and there coupled with hot tub nudity were clues enough.

In the morning he delivered on the promise to get me up to Aaron's, slightly quieter with a bit less conversation this time. All was well, I arrived to see Aaron and his wife brewing a chocolate porter with glasses full of homebrew past.

Two days later was the day we'd been waiting for. We hopped in the car, Chico bound, the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack blaring, our golden tickets glowing like pale ales, the excitement in the air as thick as a stout. Beer Camp!

We arrived early, we headed straight to a beer bar in town I'd been telling Aaron about, the Winchester Goose. A beer or two later we headed to the hotel new the brewery and checked in using our handy visa gift cards Sierra had given us to cover all our travel expenses.

Right away we met some fellow beer campers, most were staying in the same hotel since it was so close. Before long we were shuttling over to the brewery, directly to the tap room where the magic would begin.

The bar was open for us, we were campers, now there were more of us filing in, meeting our counselors and the brother of the founder. Beer after beer, whatever we wanted, soon at a long table ordering food, whatever we wanted, beers throughout with glasses clanking.

In our group there were twelve of us, most from California, two from Oregon, one from Washington, one from Chicago and then me, from the road I suppose, but my line was Connecticut. Most of us had done some extensive homebrewing, all of us appreciated good beer.

We left the brewery that night full of food and beer, we'd been treated like royalty, it was a great welcome to camp. For many of us, though, there was still more beer to be had. We piled into the room Aaron and I had gotten at the hotel, several of our fellow campers had done what we had done: brought samples of our homebrew!

It was a blast getting to know our fellow campers while nerding out on our own beer, talking techniques and ingredients, even a cigar or so got thrown in the mix before we finally let our excitement fade into sleep, a day of camp awaited us in the morning.

The next day was a god damned whirlwind, a blurry breeze of passion brewing, drowning in beer and good times. First a breakfast at the hotel I couldn't fathom touching with my hangover, my excitement was already enough to counter that.

Once at the brewery we got the full tour, starting with pale ales and videos, walking through, above, under and inside just about everything. We stood around the bar sipping beers and hammering down our recipe, we'd be brewing a beer of our choice, but all twelve of us had to agree. Luckily we'd been in touch prior to coming to camp, so after many weeks of back and forth, and now this meeting of the minds with one of Sierra's brewers, we'd dialed in our masterpiece: a 7.5% Honey Rye.

Eventually it was back to the taproom for lunch... too much food, plenty of beer, beer and more beer. More poking around the brewery afterwards, rooms full of hops piled to high ceilings, the aroma amazing, all of us in awe. A trip to a winery and monastery out of town, because why not, they were partnered with the brewery.

Back in the pub again, of course, now the second group of beer campers was filing in for their first day. They were more scattered, some from Connecticut, Florida, Alaska, North Carolina and so on, all easing into the scene, realizing just how lucky we all were. Beer.

Upstairs there was a buffet, our dinner, a concert, more beer, dancing, gypsy rock, beer, dancing, beer. Before we knew the show was over we were all making our way into town one way or another, myself and a few others in the car with one of our counselors, all of us heading to the Madison Bear Garden, a bar in town where Sierra opened a tab for all of us beer campers to party down. I remember beer, shots of some kind and riding a tricycle in laps around the bar wearing a gigantic bra. I remember more home brews back at the hotel.

Morning, some kind of news or music blasting, I was amazed to be alive, awake, Aaron was barely up and it was a good thing he was. Today was the day we brewed our masterpiece.

We were the last of our group to arrive to the brewery, but we made it more or less on time, glazed over and stumbling in, once again it was only our excitement that kept us a float.

We got to brewing right away, literally shoveling hops to weigh them out, spilling grains (Marcel) and dreaming of the beer that would soon be. After brewing we kept touring around, drinking beer straight from the source, experiments in the making.

Back to the pub, beer, beer, beer, then back to touring around. We began riding a giant bike fueled by the lot of us pedaling, the lot of us fueled by cans of provided beer.

We made a stop into the lab once again, a highlight for me and others, we did quality control taste testing for off flavors and blind tasting to test our preferences.

Then, finally, it was over. Sort of. For our group anyway. Aaron gathered himself together, he'd tapered down the drinking so he could drive himself back to Sacramento. I stuck around, the lone female from my group, Stephanie, and myself joined the other group back in the pub for dinner, then of course back to the hotel for home brews. Obviously.

I was no longer staying at the hotel, though, I got myself back to a friend's house in Chico and spent the night there. The next day my friend dragged me out to her favorite breakfast spot, but I could barely look at food and even the bloody mary. That day was spent mostly on the couch coming back to grips with reality.

Until that night. Then it was back to the pub for one last horah with the other beer campers, myself and Stephanie again, they'd just spent their last day brewing their beer, a Spanish Cedar IPA. A whole bunch of us headed to another beer bar in town to cap the night.

Finally Stephanie was dropping me back off at my friend's house. In her trunk she had a box of homebrews from other campers that had been left behind, she passed some of the bottles to me, along with a scarf she insisted I take when she found out I'd be winter hitchhiking back east.

And with that, beer camp was over, officially. It had been amazing. I was all but wiped, but still excited. After all, the best was still to come, tasting the beer we brewed, Ryeway 117. The tasting in itself... well that's more of a story than it may sound like, but that would come later. Good times.

November 1, 2013 to December 6, 2013