The Sierra Nevada brewery, located in Chico, California, is a real success story for craft beer. The company began with two men, Paul Camusi and Ken Grossman. In the 1970s, they began homebrewing, which was not nearly as popular then as it has become since then. In 1979, they had reached a point in their brewing where they decided to make it a business. They officially created the Sierra Nevada company with loans from their friends. At first, the company was only able to sell small amounts of beer, but their beer became popular very quickly, and today Sierra Nevada is a very large operation. But they still make craft beer, rather than crap beer (mass-produced stuff like Coors).
The name pale ale is a bit of a deception, because it can mean so many things. Traditionally, a pale ale is simply a beer that is warm-fermented (fermented without chilling) using pale malt (malted grain that is dried at cool temperatures to preserve more of the chemical compounds natural to it), and usually hops. This basic formula has so many possible influences and variations, that all sorts of beers can rightfully fall under the moniker. In fact, several countries have their own versions. In the US, an American pale ale tends to be heavy on the hops, and Sierra Nevada’s pale ale (5.6% ABV) is no exception. The company prides itself on using only fresh, whole-cone hops, which means that the essential oils and phytochemicals in the hops are all present, producing greater flavor, aroma, depth, and complexity that dry hops or partial hops. It is also bottle-conditioned, meaning that live, active yeast are present in the bottle, so that fermentation continues even in the bottle. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is probably the first craft beer I ever tried, many years ago (when I was too young to be drinking legally, but since it was in Louisiana…), and it will always hold a special place in my heart (and liver).
Bottle: This is one iconic bottle. Its brown glass and its pale green label with a yellow logo and black writing are some of the most recognizable things in the world of beer. The bottle is short and fat, with a medium-length, relatively thick neck. I could spot this bottle from across a football field, and immediately recognize it. It is a thing of beauty.
Pour: The color is golden-amber, which gives it a rich, complicated look. Because it is bottle-conditioned, its clarity is not pristine. It develops a thick, two-finger, soapy head that is somewhere between white and amber, and as it slowly dissipates, it leaves medium lacing.
Aroma: The whole-cone hops in this beer really come through in the aroma. Unlike a standard ale, which tends to be heavy on the malt aroma, this one also shines through in elements of pine, grapefruit, and bitterness, and even some grassiness. The malt is also there of course. This aroma is really lovely, with many elements combining to create a pleasing whole.
Flavor: I am usually not a huge fan of pale ales, as I find them too mundane, but this one really catches my attention. It is a step above the rest. It might be the hoppy bitterness with undertones of grapefruit, grass, and pine needles that I like (I am a huge fan of IPA), but it is probably that, combined with the not-too-overwhelming tea, coffee, and molasses qualities of the malted grains. It really is a good mix that leans toward the hops. If I am going to enjoy a pale ale, then this is precisely the flavor combination that I want.
Mouthfeel: I am not sure how Sierra Nevada pulls it off, but the mouthfeel manages to be both crisp, and full of body. It begins crisp on the attack, then transitions to a nice warm fullness, which then ends in a dry finish. This is a really nice mouthfeel.
Structure: This is a full, big-bodied ale. The structure is firm and balanced, without being afraid to really poke at your taste buds with a pitchfork. It stands up to the palate in an almost defiant way, without becoming to out-of-control.
Food Pairing: This is such a wonderful, all-purpose ale, with its malty goodness and hoppy bitterness combined with a full body and crisp tartness, that it is difficult to attach it to one single type of cuisine. It would fit authentic, spicy Mexican cuisine just as well as rich, saucy French cuisine. Maybe it is its all-around goodness that is the key here: serve it with any meal that is rich and varied in flavor.
Overall Rating Out of 5 Possible Beer Mugs: