This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
I’ve often remarked in the last decade that there doesn’t seem to be any older regional brewery with more general goodwill toward it than Sierra Nevada. Sure, there are a lot of places that are beloved, and a few that come close in terms of universal likability, but Sierra simply has a specific gregariousness that makes it stand alone, even among their closest peers. Certainly, it’s no accident that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the first entry in this series—it’s one of those beers that is so synonymous with the idea of American craft beer that if it wasn’t the first entry, each day would simply bring the question of how many more days it would be until SNPA appeared. Might as well do it first, right?
As I wrote in our list of the 50 best breweries of the 2010s, though, the love for Sierra Nevada isn’t just some form of “they were important trendsetters” lip service. It would have been easy for a lineup like Sierra’s to stagnate, but the brewery never allowed their core range to ossify into irrelevancy. At the same, they innovated and helped give greater exposure to emerging styles such as gose or hazy IPA over the years, while building beautiful, energy efficient/sustainable breweries and raising millions for charity and disaster relief, most notably in the wake of 2018’s devastating Camp Fire. There’s never been a shortage of reasons to admire the company.
Ultimately, though, it all comes back to the cornerstone of the entire company: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Surely the most iconic single beer of the American craft brewing movement, SNPA was first brewed as a test batch in November of 1980, intended as the second commercial release from Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi’s fledgling Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Reportedly, it took 11 batches before the pair’s vision of a more bitter, floral and pine-accented American ale was ready to see the light of day, but it finally debuted in March 1981 in the company’s original Chico, CA brewery.
Suffice to say, the American craft beer world was never the same again. Beyond the obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of beer being consumed in the U.S. was industrial lager, SNPA was also an oddity among the other handful of available beers labeled as “pale ale,” most of which were either imports or being brewed in the traditional British style. Grossman’s insistence upon the use of newly available U.S. Cascade hops gave American pale ale its signature aromatics and flavor profile, cementing a particular mold that was imitated endlessly in the next few decades, and is still ripped off now and then today. Even in a culture where popular pale ales and IPAs have drifted far afield, into the realm of hazy, juicy or overtly sweet, it’s still not hard to find breweries producing blatant SNPA clones.
With all that said, let’s re-taste some Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Tasting: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
It should likely go without saying, but a glass of SNPA is brilliantly clear, with a golden hue that is deepened with a copper glow suggesting the presence of more than just 2-row base malt in the grist. It wasn’t long ago that this was the expected look for a pint of “pale ale,” being (perhaps unintuitively) a style that was paler in shade than true “amber ale” but often at least a few shades darker than the straw yellow of most American lagers. It’s a very happy medium. Here’s how the brewery describes the icon:
Our most popular beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a delightful interpretation of a classic style. It has a deep amber color and an exceptionally full-bodied, complex character. Generous quantities of premium Cascade hops give the Pale Ale its fragrant bouquet and spicy flavor.
On the nose, SNPA is pretty easily recognized by a distinctive profile of light floral impressions, grapefruit peel and lemon zest, wrapped up in a blanket of lightly toasted malt. To American drinkers of the 1980s and 1990s who were exploring the world of beer for the first time, it was really those citrus notes that stood out most, even if, to the modern palate, they don’t necessarily register as pronouncedly “fruity.” At the time, though, it was a dimension of aromatics that drinkers weren’t getting out of various U.K. or continental European hop varietals, and the novelty of Cascade went a long way in establishing the expectations of the style.
On the palate, SNPA is anchored by a malt presence that is a little bit black tea-like in nature, with a modicum of malty sweetness, but then a mild (but firm) bitterness that shows up to put it in check. Hop flavors register subtle impressions of pine and grapefruit zest, but the true starring character of Cascade, sometimes overlooked today, is its delicate floral nature. That floral nature is a light, somewhat ephemeral thing, and it works best in conjunction with a non-bombastic malt profile, which SNPA also has. Overall, it’s a very balanced beer, with overall assertiveness of flavor pretty evenly split between malt and hop influences. Bitterness, in the end, is on the mild side—it makes me chuckle to remember a time early in my craft beer drinking days when it seemed like a “very bitter” beer to me—but in 1981 I’m sure it must have seemed pretty novel as well.
All in all, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale remains the same style definer for American pale ale now that it always was. Although the style has increasingly become a mirror of whatever trends are ruling the more robust (and hype-susceptible) world of IPA at any given moment, the words “American pale ale” still imply a beer similar to the profile of SNPA in the minds of many beer geeks, myself included. It’s a once-and-future classic of the genre, which will never truly go out of fashion.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.