Sierra Nevada may be the most respected craft brewery in North America. The company is one of the original pioneers of the craft-beer revolution, opening its doors in 1979—a time when small, independent beer simply didn’t exist. It’s been groundbreaking in many, many ways. Ken Grossman, the founder and still fully independent owner, has been crucial to the growth of craft beer in North America. He is a passionate advocate and spokesperson, acts as mentor to hundreds of brewers and, simply, never compromises on the quality of his beer.
I am telling you all this because Sierra Nevada recently expanded into the Alberta market. For the first time ever, Albertans can drink some of the classics of craft beer right in their own home.
For those of us under the age of 50, we simply cannot imagine what Grossman (and his original partner Paul Camusi) faced when he tried to open his brewery. Small-scale brewing equipment didn’t exist, so they assembled everything from repurposed dairy tanks and whatever else they could scrounge. Hop farmers refused to sell such small quantities, so Grossman had to personally drive up to their farms and talk them into selling him chunks from their evaluation bales.
Grossman had the nerve to make ales, rather than lagers—and bitter ones at that. As a result, he was part of a handful of people who almost single-handedly built the early stages of the craft-beer industry. Today, Sierra Nevada has grown a lot. It is now the third-largest craft brewery in the US. But unlike many of the other large craft players like Samuel Adams, Stone or Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada seems to have avoided controversies and debate about its craft credentials. It is universally respected in the industry.
I think this is because Grossman’s contributions are not just historical (although those are significant), but also continually innovative. In beer terms, the company continues to find new ways to make beer flavourful, such as the invention of the Hop Torpedo (more on that below) and advances in the use of distilled hop oil to create stable, flavourful hop character.
Sierra Nevada’s environmental stewardship is unmatched. The brewery is 100 percent solar-powered, with a fuel cell co-generation system to feed electricity back into the grid. It produces biodiesel from its restaurant’s cooking oil to power its delivery trucks. It produces ethanol from its waste yeast. And it is the largest buyer of organic hops in the US. It is pretty impressive.
Sierra Nevada offers a few varieties of IPA, a pilsner and a kellerbier—a must-get-your-hands-on barley wine released annually. I debated which beer to feature more prominently and decided to go with the creature of Sierra Nevada’s crazy experimentation a number years back: the Torpedo Extra IPA. This beer is created by pushing the beer through the aforementioned hop torpedo: a cylindrical chamber (that looks like a torpedo) packed with hops. This process results in a bigger, more intense yet more rounded hop flavour and aroma. It transformed how breweries think about adding hop character.
The Torpedo Extra IPA pours a deep orange, verging on amber. It has beautiful clarity and a bubbly appearance. It quickly builds a big, loose head which lasts right to the bottom of the glass. The aroma offers rich, resiny, fresh pine hop—big and assertive. It is supported by touches of fruit and a soft toffee malt sweetness.
The front of the palate is surprising soft and velvety. I get a light fruitiness with a gentle backbone of biscuit, toffee and slightly burnt caramel at the front. The middle turns to citrus and pine hop mixed with fruity esters. The finish brings out a noticeable but not overpowering bitterness and more resinous flavour. It is in the linger where the hops show—they simply don’t go away. Grapefruit and pine needle hang around the back of your mouth, coating your throat and building with every sip. The bitterness is present but not overdone. What sets this beer apart is the flavour of the hops, not their bitterness. It also finds a way to maintain balance and drinkability, even in an assertive IPA style.
This is an example of what Sierra Nevada provides all the time: innovative and interesting beers that never lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, beer is something to be enjoyed by the consumer.
There are many reasons to appreciate Sierra Nevada and its beers. I don’t care which one you pick—just buy some of their beer. You won’t regret it.V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.
Sierra Nevada Torpedo
$6.99 for 710-ml bottle