The Beer with the Green Label (cont.)
Grossman had moved from Southern California to Chico on a whim, after passing through on an epic 300-mile Northern California bicycle trip. He wanted to create a beer that was “out on the edge,” with lots of malt and hops, but balanced. He figured he could sell it—at the premium price that import beers were getting—in gourmet bastions like Portland, Boulder, and San Francisco.
With about $100,000 from friends and family, Grossman, then 24, and his former partner, Paul Camusi, started to build the Sierra Nevada brewery in 1979.
Many of the craft brews from this period just weren’t good, often because brewery sanitation was a little iffy. The beers had off notes like vinegar, cardboard, or butterscotch, or would foam out of control when opened—all signs of harmless bacterial infection. The inconsistency hurt the fledgling industry: People couldn’t trust the beer.
But with advice from folks at Anchor (and after seeing people’s junked home-brews at Grossman’s shop), Grossman and Camusi were able to establish consistency batch after batch. Instead of using threaded fittings in their equipment like some of the other small breweries did, they welded everything together, so there wouldn’t be as many nooks and crannies to harbor bacterial growth and spoil the beer. And they used mostly old dairy equipment instead of relying heavily on secondhand wine- or beer-making gear because it was more modern and easier to clean.
After dozens of test batches, Grossman and Camusi decided on a recipe for an ale spiced with the relatively unknown-at-the-time Cascade hop, grown in the Pacific Northwest, which has a strong citrusy, tangy smell and taste. (It’s now an industry standard.) They dumped the beer until they were confident they could reproduce it commercially (it took about a month to get right) and finally released their flagship brew, Pale Ale, in a brown bottle with a green label portraying a picturesque river scene. For many beer drinkers, it was like an awakening: beer packed with flavor and high-quality ingredients.
Don Russell, a.k.a. Joe Sixpack, author and longtime beer reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, says that when he tried it for the first time, “[Sierra Nevada Pale Ale] rang my bell and woke me up to what a true hoppy ale could be like.”
Sierra’s success was also buoyed by some fortuitous grass-roots marketing: At a time when the Grateful Dead was the biggest national touring act, Deadheads—possibly viewing Sierra Nevada as an anti-corporate, subversive beverage—adopted the beer as their unofficial drink of choice in the parking lot before shows.
Then came another wave: the experimenters. The generation of drinkers who grew up with this better beer opened up their own breweries, and were less likely to play it safe, putting anything and everything into their brew kettles. Today you can go into a supermarket and find beers like Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, based on a 2,700-year-old beverage discovered in the tomb of King Midas in Turkey, or a kaffir lime and lemongrass ale from Cambridge Brewing Company. But access to all manner of funky and flavorful beers has jaded drinkers’ palates. Even beer judges are seduced by extremes today, says Russell, who notes that the last time Sierra’s Pale Ale won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival was 1995.
“Has the recipe [for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale] changed?” muses Joe Carroll, co-owner of the craft beer bar Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn, New York. “Have they dumbed it down to get a larger audience? Or are we so used to drinking super-hopped-up beers in the last decade so now Sierra Nevada Pale Ale seems like Budweiser?”