Ode to Sierra Ne­vada Pale Ale

It’s the beer that built this cur­rent move­ment—an Amer­i­can twist on an es­tab­lished style that pushed the bound­ary of hops. And al­most forty years af­ter its de­but, Sierra Ne­vada Pale Ale re­mains both beloved and time­less.

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents - By John Holl

Sierra Pale is the beer that built this cur­rent move­ment—an Amer­i­can twist on an es­tab­lished style that pushed the bound­ary of hops. We stand, put down our beer for a mo­ment, and ap­plaud.

AR­GUE IF YOU LIKE,

but no other beer brewed in this coun­try, in the mod­ern age, has had more of a pos­i­tive im­pact on both the in­dus­try and the way con­sumers have come to em­brace the aroma and fla­vor of hops than Sierra Ne­vada Brew­ing Com­pany’s Pale Ale. It’s im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able, thanks to its dis­tinc­tive green la­bel an­nounc­ing “purest in­gre­di­ents” and “finest qual­ity” and the 12-ounce her­itage bot­tle with the qual­ity-seal cap (use bot­tle opener). But it’s the con­coc­tion of in­gre­di­ents in­side that brings peo­ple back again and again and helped grow a once-small brew­ing op­er­a­tion into a glob­ally rec­og­nized brand.

When Ken Gross­man and Paul Ca­musi opened Sierra Ne­vada Brew­ing Com­pany in Chico, Cal­i­for­nia, in 1980, the first beer they made was a stout. Sierra Pale came along shortly af­ter but took al­most

a dozen tries to get the recipe di­aled in to their lik­ing. In his book Be­yond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Ne­vada Brew­ing Co., Gross­man says the pair spent a lot of time “try­ing to de­cide ex­actly what fla­vor and aroma pro­file our flag­ship beer should have. We knew we needed to cre­ate our own style of beer that would stand out as be­ing unique and dis­tinc­tive.”

It came from test­ing a num­ber of hops va­ri­etals, dif­fer­ent malt bills, and even try­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent yeast strains. The recipe to­day re­mains faith­ful to the orig­i­nal with some slight tweaks along the way, but it is won­der­fully com­plex for a rel­a­tively sim­ple 5.6 per­cent ABV, brewed with 2-row pale and caramel malts and Magnum and Perle as bit­ter­ing hops and Cas­cade (an Amer­i­can marvel in its own right) as the fin­ish­ing hops.

To­day, where bit­ter­ness is a badge of honor, Sierra Pale set the foun­da­tion of what was to come. Sierra Pale clocks in at 38 IBUS, a num­ber that might seem im­pos­si­bly low to some of to­day’s drinkers. But re­mem­ber, this was cre­ated in an age where there were only a hand­ful of mi­cro­brew­ers, and the beer that ruled the land (not un­like to­day) was the Amer­i­can lager that mostly used hops as a to­ken in­gre­di­ent. Bud­weiser has 7 IBUS.

“Even to­day, I re­mem­ber how hoppy and brac­ingly bit­ter it was,” says Mitch Steele, the brew­mas­ter at New Realm Brew­ing (for more about New Realm Brew­ing, see “The Fre­quent Flyer,” page 30) who spent a decade at Stone Brew­ing Co., an­other Cal­i­for­nia brew­ery known for push­ing the hops en­ve­lope. He first vis­ited Sierra Ne­vada while he was a stu­dent at the brew­ing pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis.

“They had open-top dairy tanks fer­ment­ing beer, [for­mer Sierra Ne­vada Brew­mas­ter] Steve Dressler was walk­ing around this Franken­steined-to­gether sys­tem, and it was just the coolest thing. I bought a mixed case of pale, stout, and porter and just fell in love with ev­ery­thing that small brew­ing could be.”

“[Sierra Pale] is a lovely, balanced and great, great beer,” says Dan Ke­nary, the co­founder of Har­poon Brew­ery. “It was my go-to when I couldn’t get Har­poon IPA. For a lot of my gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can beer drinkers, Sierra Pale was a recog­ni­tion that we could do this and make great Amer­i­can beer. When this beer came onto the mar­ket, it was an an­ti­dote to what we could get in the 1970s and early 1980s.”

Even though Sierra Ne­vada started out small, its pos­i­tive rep­u­ta­tion grew quickly. Ke­nary says that when his brew­ery, founded in 1986, was as­sem­bling their flag­ship IPA, a beer rooted in the Bri­tish tra­di­tion but with an Amer­i­can in­flu­ence, Sierra Ne­vada Pale Ale served as an in­spi­ra­tion.

“Sierra Pale awoke a spirit in peo­ple, and we knew what beer should be,” says Ke­nary. “This beer in­tro­duced hops to the Amer­i­can palate, and there’s a rea­son that it still has a cult fol­low­ing: it’s still great to drink.”

The cult fol­low­ing is what brings tens of thousands of peo­ple to the brew­ery’s doors each year. The brew­ery in Chico, Cal­i­for­nia, is a mecca for many brew­ers and fans who want to walk through the brew­ery and ex­pe­ri­ence in per­son where the beer that launched their love for craft is made. As large and im­pres­sive as the brew­ery in Chico is, it pales (no pun in­tended) in com­par­i­son to the brew­ery’s sec­ond lo­ca­tion in Mills River, North Car­olina, which opened in 2012. The sprawl­ing brew­ing com­plex has been dubbed “Malt Dis­ney World” by fans, but most em­ploy­ees re­fer to it as “the House that Pale Built.”

Sierra Ne­vada now brews more than 1 mil­lion bar­rels of beer an­nu­ally, and Pale Ale is the clear best seller. It paved the way for hop­pier beers such as Tor­pedo Ex­tra IPA and has served as the base for a line ex­ten­sion, Side­car, brewed with or­anges. Still, for every new beer that Sierra Ne­vada re­leases with an ex­per­i­men­tal hops or spe­cial in­gre­di­ents, it’s the re­li­a­bil­ity, fa­mil­iar­ity, and just down­right refreshing na­ture of Pale Ale that keeps even the most for­ward-mov­ing of craft drinkers com­ing back again and again for pint af­ter pint.

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