One of my first dates with my now-wife found us watching March Madness at a crummy sports bar off Second Avenue in New York City. The atmosphere was good, but the beer list—comprised almost exclusively of macro-lagers—was dreadful. This was bad news for an insufferable beer geek like myself. But Betsy noticed something, and when the bartender came to ask what we wanted, she said those four magic words that made me know our night was going to be all right:
“Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.”
Over the course of more than three decades, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (henceforth “SNPA”) has evolved from an industry outlier to trusty dive-bar standby, all the while maintaining fierce allegiance among aficionados. Today, SNPA is the number one best-selling craft beer in the country, according to IRI scans. You can find it in all 50 states, in chain restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, convenience stores, bodegas, sports stadiums, and the most unsavory watering holes. It has even made its way to 17 foreign countries. I saw it just this winter in Munich, a city whose denizens would have you believe no worthy beer has ever been produced outside of Bavaria; a friend once told me he’d even stumbled upon some SNPA at the Great Wall of China.
This high-wire act of mainstream appeal and cult-like status is particularly remarkable when you consider the forces at play in today’s beer market: a fickle consumer base that’s constantly chasing the next wave; the inconsistencies that plague breweries when trying to scale up production; and the trend towards increasingly extreme flavor profiles. “In an industry where flagships are rapidly giving way to the always-new portfolio strategy, and consumers sometimes don’t taste the same beer twice, we may never see the rise of a national craft label like Pale Ale again,” writes Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting. In that sense, it’s the Illmatic of craft beer—a ground-breaking classic that never lost its luster with age.
[SNPA] is the definitive California pale ale, and the reason many other craft brewers have found willing customers.
While Sam Adam’s Boston Lager (the number two best-selling craft beer) is all but ignored by the beer-geek cognoscenti, and Anchor Liberty Ale (this country’s “first” craft beer) is now a blip on the radar, SNPA continues to expand its influence across the beer-drinking spectrum while avoiding the sell-out stigma. Everyone from no-frills six-pack guzzlers to serious drinkers (it scores an impressive 91 on Beer Advocate after nearly 11,000 reviews) bows at its altar.
This devotion is especially strong among industry professionals, who see SNPA as a legacy beer that paved the way for their craft. Firestone Walker’s co-founder David Walker had his first taste of the pale ale 1992 at a Silicon Valley sandwich shop. A Brit more inclined at the time to drinking maltier offerings, he says it opened his eyes to what American craft beer could be. “It was the original IPA, although tagged a pale ale,” Walker explains. “The world just caught up with the hops.” He now hails it as “the definitive California pale ale, and the reason many other craft brewers have found willing customers.” (His brewmaster Matt Brynildson is even more dramatic, having once claimed, “When you die as a brewer, you go to Chico.”)
Vinnie Cilurzo, founder and brewmaster at Russian River, and the literal inventor of the double IPA, believes SNPA conditioned drinkers’ tastes for the modern hops craze. “Little by little people who were already drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale found our IPA, and it was these customers that kept us afloat,” he says. That’s not all talk either—he still keeps his home fridge stocked with SNPA at all times. And the veneration isn’t limited to West Coast acolytes who followed the hops-strewn trail blazed by Sierra. Allagash founder Rob Tod, who eschews the IPA craze in favor of Belgian-style brewing at his Portland, ME brewery, calls SNPA the “brewer’s beer”—unfussy and well-balanced enough to drink often, but complex enough to satisfy sophisticated palates. “If I’m sitting down at a bar, that’s the beer I order,” he told First We Feast while breaking down the beers that influenced his career. “I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t drink a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.”
This deep respect within the industry can be attributed to the founder’s own roots. Ken Grossman was a multi-time college dropout, erstwhile bike mechanic, and moderately successful homebrew-shop owner when he decided to open a brewery in Chico, California in the late-1970s. Microbreweries in America were scarce at the time, numbering fewer than a dozen. Influenced by the hops used by Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewing—located just south in San Francisco—Grossman aspired to brew similar beers while leveraging an important relationship that his rivals didn’t possess: his connections with Yakima Valley hops brokers.
Sierra Nevada is one of the few breweries that avoided the ‘that band got too big and now they suck’ syndrome.
The first “official” SNPA was brewed on November 21, 1980. Its final recipe ended up highlighting Cascade hops, the first new hop variety released by the Department of Agriculture since Prohibition. This generous addition of Cascade—a pound of whole-cone hops per barrel—gave SNPA its signature pine and citrus aroma. (Due mostly to SNPA’s massive influence, Cascade has become the #1 hop used by American craft brewers.) It was also bottle-conditioned, meaning a bit of fermentable sugar and active yeast was actually in the beer—a technique fairly unique for the time, and an important aspect of its staying power.
Today, grabbing a six-pack of SNPA feels like a steal when you compare it to the prices of Corona at your local corner store. But in its infancy, the beer wasn’t nearly as accessible. SNPA was initially priced at 85 cents a bottle, similar to most “fancy” imports, but about twice as expensive as other American beers of the time. Margins were tight for Sierra Nevada in the early days of 1981; luckily, California allowed breweries to self-distribute their own beer.
“We walked the streets of Chico,” Grossman told Kiser. “We couldn’t afford to buy six-pack carriers so we were taking individual bottles around with us in an ice chest. Our first day we maybe had five or six sales.” The flavor profile wasn’t an easy sell for palates trained on watery domestic lagers—“[it] was definitely the hoppiest beer of its time when introduced,” writes Grossman. Fittingly, it found its spiritual home in the free-wheeling Bay Area, becoming the “parking lot beer” of Deadheads while also finessing its way into the foodie circles thanks to menu appearances at Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse restaurant.
Since its infancy, SNPA’s trajectory—both in terms of yield and reputation—never really sloped downwards. It still accounts for around 50% of the brewery’s overall volume, with roughly 500,000 barrels brewed per year. But unlike so many breweries worth well into the billions and now resting on the profits of their one cash-cow flagship, Sierra’s continued commitment to innovation has helped cast a positive glow back on its core offering. Last year the brewery unveiled Hop Hunter, an intriguing IPA made using a unique hop oil extract it claims to have invented. That release was followed closely by Otra Vez, a gose brewed using grapefruit and cactus. Its most ambitious current project, though, is Beer Camp Across America, a collaboration program with dozens of small breweries.
“Sierra Nevada is one of the few breweries that avoided the ‘that band got too big and now they suck’ syndrome,” says Ryan Sentz, owner of Funky Buddha and a Beer Camp collaborator. The Florida brewery produces some of the country’s most avant-garde offerings, like No Crusts, a PB&J-inspired brew about as far away from a pale ale as you could possibly be. Yet even the brewers at the fringes of the beer establishment tip their caps to SNPA’s unimpeachable consistency—a quality that transcends creativity and gets to the heart of a professional brewer’s mission.
“It blows my mind that Sierra Nevada makes so much off it, and the brewery sends it all over the country, and yet it’s always really consistent and really good,” says Founders Brewing’s brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki. “If I’m at a restaurant and a little weary about picking some beer I haven’t heard about, I know that I can go with Sierra Nevada [Pale Ale] and be satisfied.” Sixpoint’s Jeff Gorlechen concurs: “[T]he consistency and quality of this beer remains the aspiration of all breweries. It’s the granddaddy of American craft beer.”
The aforementioned trust Sierra Nevada has established with its fan base not only stems from flavor, but also innovative quality control techniques. “We always shipped our beers refrigerated,” explains Dressler—a necessity for bottle-conditioned beers that are susceptible to aging poorly and unintended flavor changes if stored warm. In 2012, in a move that signaled its willingness to adapt in the interest of improving its product, the company started selling SNPA in cans to assure further freshness control. Cans are, of course, hugely popular with a younger generation of drinkers—especially the Heady Topper-esque 16-ounce size—and brisk sales seem to indicate that, yet again, the iconic green label has been introduced to a whole new slew of fans. Even as the craft industry continues to evolve and become more specialized, one thing is certain: despite its ubiquity, SNPA will still be the beer everyone is talking about.