Turning 40 is a pretty big deal for a person. Even your parents start asking if you feel old. (Well, at least mine did.)
But for a brewery, marking a 40th year is a huuuuuge deal.
Sure, there are plenty of really old breweries, especially around here. Three of the 10 oldest breweries in the country are right here in Wisconsin: Monroe’s Minhas Craft Brewery (established in 1845, before Wisconsin statehood), Stevens Point Brewery (1857) and Chippewa Falls’ Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. (1867).
But 40 is a kind of middle age that has very little company among American brewers. In fact, in this way at least, Sierra Nevada has none. It’s the oldest remaining brewery that began during what would become known as the craft beer era.
Some qualifiers here:
It still exists. Co-founder (and still owner) Ken Grossman brewed Sierra Nevada’s first successful batch on repurposed dairy tanks in 1980, just two years after homebrewing was legalized and around the nadir for the post-Prohibition brewery count. Grossman set up shop in Aaron Rodgers’ hometown of Chico, California, about 100 miles from New Albion Brewing, which is widely recognized as the first new American craft brewery. New Albion opened in Sonoma in 1976 but only lasted seven years.
It was a new brewery. The first brewery to embrace the spirit of what craft beer would become was San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, which had been around in some form or another since Northern California’s gold rush in the mid-19th century. But it became what we’d call a craft brewery in 1965, reviving its archetypal California common, Anchor Steam Beer. By 1971, Anchor was also producing a porter (an English style no longer made in England), IPA (25 years before its modern heyday) and barleywine (decades before it was popular). That, ladies and gentlemen, is America’s first craft brewery.
Sierra Nevada is more than just (kinda) old, though. It has sold beer in all 50 states for nearly 20 years, and well before that it had become one of the first craft beers many people knew. Its green-labeled Pale Ale defined the “West Coast” style of hoppy beer and planted seeds for the IPA and craft revolution from coast to coast.
These days, Sierra Nevada is the 10th-largest brewing company in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association, trailing mostly macrobreweries and onetime “craft” brewers that sold themselves to macrobreweries.
It’s hard to overstate Sierra Nevada’s role in shaping today’s beer world, but I respect the heck out of it for what it’s doing now, too.
Sierra Nevada manages to incorporate trends without outright chasing them. Some of my favorite Sierra beers of the last few years have been of-the-moment styles, perfectly executed in a way that makes sense for Sierra. My favorite of these: Otra Vez, a gose that was made with prickly pear when it was introduced in 2017 (now lime and agave), and Hazy Little Thing, a great hazy IPA introduced in early 2018 that saw sales in grocery, convenience and chain stores more than double to $52.7 million last year.
There’s no seasonal beer I look forward to more every year than Celebration Ale. This fresh-hop IPA is just perfect for its late fall/early winter run: a robust, gorgeous and classically Sierra hop profile with a rich, caramelly malt backdrop. I wrote about it adoringly back in 2011, the first year of this column. If I could write about it every year, I would.
Sierra doesn’t just do hops well. Summerfest, a Czech lager. Narwhal imperial stout. Bigfoot barleywine. A now annual tradition of partnering with a German brewery to make what’s without fail a fantastic and distinctive Oktoberfest. Sierraveza, its new-ish light lager. They’re all good to great.
For a national brewery with a somewhat hop-forward portfolio, Sierra Nevada’s beer keeps remarkably well. Three to six months of age on Pale Ale or Celebration Ale is no problem. This is often ascribed to high initial quality for the beer and tight packaging processes. As beer writer Josh Bernstein said in picking Pale Ale as one of his “beers you must try before you die“ for Gear Patrol: “No matter if I buy this beer at a gas station off a highway exit ramp, a grocery store or an airport, the quality is guaranteed to be the same: impeccable.”
I mean, I could go on. Sierra’s commitment to sustainability. Its beers’ very reasonable price point. Its gorgeous destination breweries in Chico and Mills River, North Carolina. Its national Resilience campaign to raise funds for people affected by the 2018 wildfires literally in its backyard.
So, yeah, I kinda love Sierra Nevada, and I was excited to review its special 40th anniversary beer. And, frankly, I wish it were better.
40th Hoppy Anniversary Ale
Style: American IPA
Brewed by: Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, Callifornia
What it’s like: If a West Coast IPA and a blonde ale had a baby, this is it. Twitter friend @riverguardian noted that 40th has a little India pale lager vibe to it and while I can’t pinpoint exactly why, I do agree.
Where, how much: A six-pack will run you eight or nine bucks, and it’s the rare beer that might be easier to find at a grocery store than a local bottle shop.
Up close: After pouring out 40th’s pale orangeish gold with a nice dollop froth cap, take a minute to enjoy the aroma, because it’s this beer’s best attribute. It’s led by a citrusy fruitiness I couldn’t quite place (somewhere between orange and grapefruit), a touch of pine needle and a hint of caramelly malt. That barely-there malt character carries through to the flavor, which is run entirely by the hops, with assertive bitterness and the pine character jumping to the front. The body is light — thin, even — and the pine notes ride deep into the bitter finish.
It’s a beer that I was primed to like, and while 40th’s components are right up my alley, it just never really came together. That’s exceedingly unusual for Sierra Nevada, and really disappointing for a beer marking such a special occasion.
Do I think less of Sierra for it? Not really. I’ll just go with a Pale Ale next time.
Bottom line: 3 stars (out of five)
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