If the topic is the Sierra Nevada mountain range, 30 years would barely be be counted by a small pebble or a few rings of growth on one of its giant sequoias.
But, the topic here is the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and in the life of the U.S. craft brewing industry 30 years is huge. In fact, it nearly spans the entire generally accepted life of craft brewing in the United States.
For American craft beer historians, all will typically point to Northern California as the birthplace for this relatively young industry. Most will point to Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and its purchase by Fritz Maytag in the 1960s as the beginning of this new era in American beer brewing. New Albion, the microbrewery—as they were more commonly referred to in the earlier days — started by Jack McAuliffe in 1976, often comes next in the chronological conversation.
Fast forward through the next few years to 1979 when Ken Grossman was toying with the idea of turning his homebrewing passion into a full-fledged microbrewing operation in Chico, Calif. By November of 1980, he was ready to launch a small brewery pieced together from equipment cast off from other breweries.
Over the years and through tremendous growth, from smart energy to recycling to conservation, the number of ways in which Sierra Nevada becomes ever-more-eco-friendly from one year to the next is staggering. SNBC has never lost focus on this integral component of their mission and business model and is continually recognized as a leader in sustainability and eco-friendliness. These topics could easily serve as material for a longer, separate article.
Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale was the first beer in the brew kettle on November 15, 1980. For many craft beer drinkers today, the Pale Ale likely was one of the first “microbrews” to pass their lips and introduce them to a world of new flavors and aromas that they had never known in beer. At the time, it was an adventurous beer that introduced many beer drinkers to the wondrous aroma and bitter flavor of hops. By today’s standard, it passes simply as a standard-bearer of a solid hoppy pale ale that established the basis for modern day IPAs, double IPAs, and the like.
The following year, the brewery introduced Celebration. Call it an India Pale Ale (IPA) or a hoppy amber ale, but some consider it simply a bigger version of the Pale Ale, with more hops and alcohol, and it has become synonymous over the years with the winter season. This is partly due to the label’s featured wintry scene and partly due to the market release in mid-to-late autumn. The release coincides with the fresh hop harvest season as the beer is finished with a dry-hopping prior to bottling and kegging.
In recent years, SNBC has continued to introduce varieties of beer at a more rapid pace than at any time in its history. Competition in these heady years of craft brewing almost demands they do so in order to keep up with consumer tastes, trends, and demands. In the past several years, SNBC has added solid performers like Torpedo (IPA), Kellerweis (Hefeweizen), Glissade (golden Bock), Southern Hemisphere (fresh hop harvest ale), and most recently Tumbler (brown ale), to name just a few. The market has responded enthusiastically.
The 30th Anniversary Series
Throughout 2010, four beers have been introduced on a limited basis to commemorate not only the brewery’s success over the past thirty years but also the success of the industry as a whole. To that end, Grossman collaborated with long-time industry luminaries to brew three of the beers and took a few of his own to blend into the fourth special release.
The first release came earlier this year and was formulated with Fritz Maytag of Anchor. Maytag has seen his own forty years in the business fly by and is now at the point of turning over the reigns to a new management group, while staying on in an advisory role. If his name sounds familiar, it should because it is, in fact, his family name that is involved in the business of washing machines, vineyards (York Creek), and blue cheese. The beer that he and Grossman crafted was a dark and rich imperial stout that goes extremely well with rich chocolate desserts and decadent blue cheese.
Next up in the Sierra Nevada anniversary series came an imperial helles Bock brewed with the “father of homebrewing”, Charlie Papazian, and writer Fred Eckhardt from Portland, Oregon. Fred, the senior in this group of collaborators at 84 years of age, has written about beer for over forty years and is still active in the industry as a writer, judge, and a self-described educator. His The Essentials of Beer Style was published in 1989.
The last collaborative beer was a smooth, but powerful, American-styled barleywine brewed with Jack McAuliffe of the aforementioned short-lived New Albion. The beer has its own interesting back story that recalls summer solstice parties around his New Albion brewery. McAuliffe makes rare appearances around the industry these days, so brewing with him was quite a noteworthy event for Grossman and his Sierra Nevada team.
In these three anniversary beers, SNBC has accomplished many things. First, and perhaps most obviously, they called attention to themselves and the mark that they have created in the craft brewing industry over the past thirty years. Second, they have given credit where credit is due to just a few of the other industry pioneers of the same time period. And, last, they created a fun atmosphere in which to learn more about beer—the ingredients, the food pairings, and the people who make it.
The last beer is being released this month (November) and is a blend of three Sierra Nevada beers, oak-aged Bigfoot Barleywine, Celebration Ale, and Pale Ale. After blending, the beer was dry-hopped with an extra generous helping of hops. With the barleywine comprising only 22% of the total beer, this beer is quite balanced and deceivingly drinkable at 9.2% alcohol by volume. This beer, like the preceding three anniversary installments, all drink very well now but should also hold up well if aged.
In recent weeks, bars across the country have been lining up as many Sierra Nevada beers as possible to serve at honorary 30th anniversary party events, with an obvious emphasis on serving all four anniversary beers on tap, or out of the bottle, at the same time.
Rattle ‘n’ Hum in New York City, for example, has an event with at least 40 Sierra Nevada beers and a slate full of frivolity scheduled for November 30 later this month.
The online beer forum, BeerAdvocate, lists at least a sweet sixteen lineup of Sierra Nevada anniversary-related events on November 15 alone.
But, the real celebration comes to a head this evening when the Chico brewing company hosts an anniversary party at its headquarters. A full dinner, plenty of beer sampling, live music, and dancing will keep the throngs partying well into the night.
The Past, The Future
Since taking first and second places in 1983 at the inaugural Great American Beer Festival with its Pale Ale and Porter, respectively, and gold in 1987 for its Bigfoot Barleywine, SNBC has been turning out award-winning and great-tasting beer year after year.
As Grossman and the management of Sierra Nevada continue to age, the future of the brewing company appears well positioned for future success with family and younger management poised to eventually take the reigns for another thirty plus years of brewing success.
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