Founded in 1979, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is one of the most venerable and popular ale factories in America. Their highly respected flagship (the Pale Ale) practically defines the American Pale Ale style and is currently the second best selling craft beer in the US behind the ubiquitous Sam Adams Boston Lager. Churning out close to 700,000 barrels a year, Sierra Nevada is one of the biggest names in American craft brewing and their wares can be found in almost every bar and restaurant in the country. They’re a true success story in the industry and they have been praised widely by nearly every Alehead on Earth.
So why have I come to bury Sierra Nevada?
I used to champion the brewery like I was a Sierra apostle. I thought their Pale Ale was THE gateway drug for people who claimed to “hate” hoppy beers. I thought their Bigfoot was one of the best examples of an American barleywine on the market. I even thought their Porter, not exactly their biggest name, was a solidly serviceable Americanized version of the style. They took classic styles, put a slight “twist” on them, and made them great. To me, they were like the US-version of Samuel Smith’s.
I used to have a sixer of one of their offerings in my fridge at all times. I never even thought about it…when all else failed, I’d just grab a Sierra. But a funny thing happened this year. My friends in Chico, California started to let me down…over and over and over again.
In 2010, I sampled my usual variety of different Sierra offerings. And what happened? I hated the Tumbler. I hated the Glissade. I hated the Summerfest. I thought this year’s Harvest Wet Hop Ale was tremendously disappointing. Even the usually reliable Bigfoot was “off” this year.
But what really pushed me over the edge was the 2010 Celebration Ale.
Now, to be fair, when I griped to Doc about the beer, he said that he never liked fresh Celebration Ales and always recommended aging them for awhile. But personally, I always looked forward to their release and used to practically drink them right off the shelf. A bigger, bolder, hoppier version of Sierra’s classic Pale Ale made with the season’s first hop harvest? What’s not to like? In the past, the beer has been a winner. But this year? Bleh. It was the final nail in the coffin for me. While I still recognize Sierra Nevada as a great brewery…they’re officially on notice. I’m no longer an apostle. I’m wary…and growing warier.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe my tastes have changed. Maybe I’ve gotten unlucky with the offerings I’ve purchased from the brewery. Or maybe they’re just not as good as they used to be. As Bob Dylan once sang (or whatever you call it when Bob Dylan’s mouth makes noises), “Please get out of the new [road] if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a-changin'”. The craft beer world is a-changin’, and part of me feels like Sierra Nevada is still stuck in the old road.
Is that fair to Sierra Nevada? Of course not. One look at their current offerings on BeerAdvocate reveals a host of cool, funky new brews. But since those beers aren’t available to me in ‘Bama, I’m going with my inner Colbert and blogging with my gut. Blogs are defined by hasty, unsupported statements…they’re our bread and butter. I say that Sierra Nevada is slipping, dammit…and if you disagree, you can go to hell! Or, you know, you can let me know in the comments. Actually, let’s go with the latter. I like comments.
BEER: Sierra Nevada 2010 Celebration Ale
NOTES: Bottle @ McHops Monastery
STYLE: American IPA
APPEARANCE: Slightly hazy copper with orange highlights
HEAD: Fluffy, dense, and bright white…if nothing else, this is a nice-looking beer
NOSE: And here’s where things take a turn. In the past, the Celebration has been a (pardon the pun) “celebration” of fresh hops. Bright, pungent, sticky hops permeated everything but they were balanced beautifully by a perfect, sweet malt backbone and a big burst of peppery spice. But this year? That sweet malt backbone seems to have been replaced by a barely-there biscuit-dough aroma and that excellent hint of spice is negligible. And while I love the aroma of fresh hops as much as anyone, the Celebration smelled like there were hop plugs still floating in my beer. It smelled more like a homebrew experiment than the carefully calibrated concoction I know it’s supposed to be.
TASTE: More of the same in the taste. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that Sierra just took their Glissade and dumped 10 tons of hop plugs into the beer, bottled it, and called it a day. No balance. No sweetness. A touch of bread in the middle, but otherwise just hop bitterness up front and huge astringent flavors in the finish.
MOUTHFEEL: Medium-bodied and very nicely carbonated, but so drying and astringent on the finish that I could still taste it 10 minutes later. Like I said, I LOVE hops…but they have to be incorporated into the beer intelligently. This year’s Celebration tasted like someone loaded a shotgun full of hop pellets and just blasted the fermentation tank.*
*Note: I realize that hops are a plant and would neither fire from a gun nor penetrate a stainless steel tank. It’s called poetic license, you dick.
DRINKABILITY: Nil. Too bitter. Too unbalanced. Too bad.
RATING: 2 Hops…and that’s mostly because of my respect for the beer’s earlier incarnations. If I was just rating the brew on its 2010 incarnation alone, it might be even lower.
Afterword: After posting this article, Doc pointed out an on-line interview with the Sierra Nevada brewmasters in which they swear the recipe hasn’t changed since 1983…so it’s probably just me. But I honestly believe this beer used to be better. Or maybe that just proves my point that while other ale factories are pulling ahead, Sierra Nevada is content to stay the same. Whatever…they’re successful brewers and I’m not. What the hell do they care what I think?