Our ongoing series on the essential beers that anyone who’s interested in craft beer ought to know.
Continuing on my nostalgic trip down Beer Lane (refer to my last article on Stone IPA), let’s take a look at another iconic brew—the SIERRA NEVADA Pale Ale (SNPA). We at the Craft Beer Section of the Corkscrewer Report may come across as a tad enthusiastic about Sierra Nevada beers, but don’t they deserve a lot of love and respect for being one of craft beer’s pioneers and overall game-changers? Would we be here expounding on all the beauty of the current crop of craft beers were it not for Mr. Grossman, Mr. Camusi and Sierra Nevada?
SNPA was the first legal 6-pack that I bought upon turning 21. I walked proudly down to the local market in downtown Isla Vista (UC Santa Barbara), picked up that sixer, walked to the cashier like a real man (most likely, it was an uncertain, but giddy slink) and presented my newfound freedom in the form of my ID. I plunked down my hard-earned $6 and change, which was a considerable amount for beer in college, and went home to crack open a bottle of pure, hoppy goodness and joy. I didn’t know much about hops in those days, or about microbrews. I just knew that it was flavorful, refreshing and soooo much better than the cheap, crappy beer I’d been drinking for the first couple of years in college.
The likes of Bass Ale, Pete’s Wicked Ale and SNPA were to become regular fixtures in my fridge. I yearned for something more tasty, more satisfying, something that wouldn’t taste like recycled urine once it warmed in the can. SNPA was one of the hoppiest and most flavorful American beers you could find in the early 1990s. This was a craft beer before there was such a thing. Those were simple days.
The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. was founded by homebrewing hobbyists Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi in 1979. With an initial investment of roughly $100,000 and using second-hand equipment, they opened up their brewery in Chico, California. The first batch of their flagship Pale Ale was introduced in November 1980, and a year later they brewed their winter seasonal Celebration Ale. In comparison to most beers at the time, SNPA—and Celebration in particular—were considered insanely hoppy and bitter in the early 80s. Lucky for us, these foolish opinions were ignored and Sierra Nevada found a following, continued to increase production (and beer styles) and, by the turn of the century, produced one of the best-selling and influential pale ales in the United States.
By the time I started college, the Sierra Nevada brand was pretty well-established. Their beers were distributed to several states; however, the “microbrewing” world was still a subject among only the realm of dedicated, resourceful, and well-traveled beer geeks.
So, how does the SNPA hold up after all these years? After pouring the rich honey-amber colored brew into my glass, I took a couple of deep whiffs. I got bready tones of malt, some honey sweetness and the subtle pine and citrus aromas from the Cascade hops, especially once I let the beer sit for a bit. You won’t miss the hops when you take your first sip—the crispy, piney and mild citrus flavors definitely dances across the palate. Again, the hop bite is quite mild and the bready malts are right there beneath the hops. In fact, the malts are so much more pronounced in the old-school brews and share top billing with the hops. It all balances out so nicely.
The Sierra Nevada Pale Ale seems relatively lightweight compared to today’s pale ales, what, with all the hop choices and million-dollar brewing equipment that produce countless variants of hop bombs available today. But, let’s consider what SNPA was when it was first brewed—one of the most flavorful and hoppiest beers produced in the 80s and 90s. This was truly a groundbreaking beer. While I may no longer actively seek out SNPA given today’s endless choices, this is still a great tasting beer. As my currently very pregnant wife put it (I use the super sensory powers bestowed upon her in pregnancy to contribute a second opinion), SNPA is not as hoppy as she would prefer, but it still satisfies her hop cravings and makes for a wonderfully refreshing pool-side drink.
The Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a quintessentially American beer and a true classic. If you’re stuck in the beer aisle pondering which of the hundreds of beers to choose from as you’re headed to the weekend BBQ, maybe you should just stop agonizing and grab a case of this. In fact, cases of SNPA in 2017 are quite a bargain—right at (or even below) the price point of that fateful day I could legally drink. My 21-year-old self didn’t even have to think twice about it and, sometimes, the old-school choice is the best choice you can make. —J.A.