They haven’t dumbed it down. The six-pack at the gas station is still bottle-conditioned and made with pricey, whole hops. But it’s no longer new. Other than occasional seasonal specialties, before this year, Sierra Nevada hadn’t added a product to its year-round lineup since 1992; before that, 1980. The brewery has experimented with different beers all along but has never released much beyond the walls of its own brewpub in Chico.
“We were always afraid we’d cannibalize our Pale Ale if we came out with another hoppy pale ale, another IPA. We probably debated it for way more years than we should have, and finally decided, ‘Let’s just do it, we’re sort of missing the boat on what the drinkers want,’” says Grossman.
Now, Sierra’s trying to jump back on the boat. This year, the company added two year-round beers to its portfolio: Kellerweis, a Bavarian-style wheat beer with assertive banana and clove-y flavors, and Torpedo, an “extra IPA” that Grossman started working on 10 years ago—way before the current hoppy trend.
Sierra has also created Chico Estate Harvest Ale using hops and barley grown on the brewery’s property (an experiment in applying the winemaking concept of terroir to beer), and it has plans to use corked bottles for specialty beers. Most significantly, Grossman has hooked up with Sam Calagione of the experimental Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales in Delaware to produce two collaborative beers, Life & Limb and Limb & Life. Other collaborations with edgy brewers are in the works.
“Sam and I have spent many evenings laughing, arguing, and toasting glasses, talking about where we are in the business and where we’re going. It has been an interesting and inspiring experience and will hopefully lead to big things,” Grossman said in a press release about the collaboration, Sierra Nevada’s first.
Torpedo is so far selling well. And some of the cooler-than-thou beer bars like the Monk’s Kettle and Spuyten Duyvil even stock the company’s special releases when they appear. “The stuff we do pour [from Sierra] is the more oddball stuff they do, small-production stuff,” says Spuyten Duyvil’s Carroll. “We’re about shining light on lesser-known beers.”
But Sierra’s still going to have to work hard to reclaim its image as a craft brewery. At the Monk’s Kettle, the Google guys were suspicious. “I haven’t heard of [new, experimental beers] coming out of Sierra,” sniffed one. “Everybody’s got a wheat beer now,” shrugged the other.
“We are used to being cynical. When something gets big, it’s usually not very good anymore,” says Dave McLean, owner of Magnolia Pub in San Francisco. “But that cynicism shouldn’t apply in this case. Among people that appreciate good beer, [Sierra Nevada is] still every bit as important to today’s beer landscape as it was 30 years ago.”
As McLean sees it, many of today’s beer and food enthusiasts have become collectors of tastes and experiences, and this isn’t necessarily a good thing. “When you start realizing everything that’s out there, you feel like you have to try everything,” he muses. “Before you realize it, you’re in ‘got to try that’ mode instead of just enjoying the tastes you love.”
Images courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.