Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, 5.6% ABV – This Beer Started the US Craft Beer Revolution
Craft spirit or craft drinks brands are generally small batch brewery/distillery operations run by family members and a small handful of workers. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (SNBC) is today America’s second-largest craft brewery with a founder Ken Grossman who became a billionaire off his business. Yet despite its scale, SNBC’s flagship beers remain benchmarks in their categories and an inspiration for all American craft breweries – often being referred to as “your favourite brewer’s favourite beer”. Why is SNBC such a big deal in California and indeed most of America? We’ll have to take a sip of its flagship Pale Ale to find out.
The story of SNBC begins with a familiar stereotype of American life. The US has been so often portrayed in popular culture that its culture and archetypes are most widely caricatured by non-Americans around the world. Caricatured Americans love too much fast food, collecting guns, screaming at WWE, a much more aggressive version of football and they really value the concept of “freedom”.
Of all these stereotypes, the least controversial, in my opinion, is the mainstream American love for light beer. Since the 1980s, Bud Light and Coors Light have been the butt of most alcohol-related jokes. They’re indeed very very light, crisp and refreshing. But they are also associated with college and frat culture, too much partying, binge drinking and drinkers with less sophisticated tastes.
Like it or not, there’s some truth in these stereotypes. For decades, the US beer market has been dominated by light lagers from large corporations like Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Company – almost always marketing light lagers that are easy to drink, low alcohol content (around 5% ABV) and a very mild flavour profile.
The Beer that started the US Craft Beer Revolution
It wasn’t until SNBC became the first craft brewery to challenge the status quo dominance of giants like Anheuser-Busch and Miller in the US beer market. SNBC was founded in 1978 by passionate home brewer-turned-craft-brewer Ken Grossman. While the rest of America was drinking Bud Light or Miller Light, Ken much preferred the strong hoppiness and rich aroma of a handcrafted ale. He believed that others would too. This led Ken to improvise his first craft brewery in Chico City, California, using recycled equipment from a dairy farm to make a different type of beer that he’d like to drink.
SNBC introduced its Pale Ale in 1980, and it quickly became a high-quality alternative to mass-produced lagers from beer giants Anheuser-Busch and Miller. The Pale Ale’s popularity and quality quickly established SNBC as a leading brewery and a pioneer of the American craft beer movement. SNBC eventually grew to become one of the largest craft beer brewers in the US with over 650 employees and an annual production of over 31 million gallons of beer with two large scale breweries in both the West and East Coast of America.
Today, we’ll enjoy a cold pint of SNBC’s flagship Pale Ale with its iconic green label. This is the same beer that introduced a generation of Americans – some of whom thought beer was simply Bud Light – to the beauty of craft beers. Does the SNBC Pale Ale taste the same today as compared to when it was first produced in 1980? I have no idea because I was still in the cosmic void, waiting to be born in 1993. However, over 40 years on, SNBC remains widely respected for its consistency and high quality – the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is still widely considered to be one of the best examples of the American Pale Ale style.
We’ll safely assume that this is the same beer that started the American craft beer revolution.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, 5.6% ABV – Review
Appearance: Golden honey.
Nose: Sweet, aromatic and citrusy. On the nose, this has a distinctly rich top notes of grapefruits, Florida oranges and fresh pine. Just as present are delicious malty notes of toasted graham crackers and a mild nuttiness of crushed walnuts. A very restrained mild bitterness similar to citrus rinds.
In the mouth: Smooth and crisp-dry mouthfeel with a medium body. This is also gently carbonated and without much of a bite. The citrusy fruity nose, and my experiences with Asian craft beers, made me expect a bit more fruitiness. However, I loved how the focus isn’t on sweet fruits here, but semi-sweet toasted notes. A bold and thick caramelised maltiness takes centre stage – more graham crackers, toasted granola and nuttiness layered with a very moderate bitter hoppiness that is far from the intensity of an IPA. There’s definitely a good component of grapefruits and honey here as well – but this isn’t the focus.
The finish is very clean and leaves the tongue with light barley note and a refreshing bitterness.
This beer is quite possibly one of the most universally tasty beer you could grab off the shelf of a supermarket.
I can see why SNBC’s Pale Ale is the quintessential example of the classic American Pale Ale and how SNBC remains an inspiration to American craft beer breweries. This beer demonstrates how you could make a very tasty and complex beer without overpowering the senses with intensity. These days many craft breweries seem somehow fixated on excesses, focusing on making incredibly fruity, juicy or very hoppy IPAs to capture the consumer’s attention. SNBC’s Pale Ale has very forthcoming flavours from a variety of different notes – you could see a distinct bit of fruit, malt and hops here. Most satisfyingly, every component is incredibly well-balanced in a Goldilocks kind of way. There’s jusssst the right amounts of hops and sweetness to give this beer character and still make it a very approachable beer for someone new to craft beers.
It's quite possible that this is your favourite brewer's favourite beer.
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