The Beer with the Green Label

Sierra Nevada tries to reclaim its cred

By Roxanne Webber

Beer aficionados could hardly do better than the Monk’s Kettle, a bar and restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. The beer list is five pages and nearly 200 choices long, including a coconut and macadamia nut porter and a beer made with crushed Chardonnay grapes. Would those two Google engineers at the corner of the bar—the ones drinking challenging Belgian sour ales—ever order a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale?

“You’d deserve to be made fun of by the proprietor!” scoffs one. “It’s just very mainstream.” The other one considers for a moment: “I’d drink it if my choices were that or Bud.” But even if they wanted to, they couldn’t order a Sierra Nevada at the Monk’s Kettle—Pale Ale has never been on tap here, because you can get it anywhere; it doesn’t have enough cachet with drinkers like the Google guys.

And here’s the irony: Ask a craft brewer which other brewers he most admires, and he’s likely to mention Sierra Nevada. The Chico, California, brewery is considered to be sacred ground, and its beers expertly crafted. “When you die as a brewer, you go to Chico,” says Matthew Brynildson, brewmaster of Firestone Walker in Southern California.

One of the reasons Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione got into brewing in the first place was because he so loved the taste of a Sierra Nevada holiday beer called Celebration Ale. The esteemed brewer Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company never lets his home fridge run dry of Pale Ale. “It’s a perfectly balanced beer,” he says.

But “perfectly balanced” is having a hard time competing with macadamia nuts. Now that hundreds of small-batch and wacky beers are being made (often trying to outhop each other with extremely bitter flavors), the moderately hoppy, medium-bodied ale seems boring by comparison. You can get it at any corner liquor store. It’s on tap next to MGD at nearly every bar. It’s too mainstream for somebody who wants exotic, and too ubiquitous for somebody who equates quality with rarity.

When it debuted in 1980, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the extreme. Almost all beer in America was like Bud: bland, light lager, easy to drink, thirst-quenching, and inexpensive. Anybody wanting the grainy, malty tastes, bitter hops, or fruity yeast flavors of European beers was out of luck. Sierra Nevada came along and with a handful of other adventurous small breweries created a market for craft beer, educating consumers and future brewers about how good beer could be.

Other than Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, which was making craft brews in the early ’70s under Fritz Maytag, the craft beer movement didn’t really get rolling until the late 1970s, when laws prohibiting home-brewing were relaxed. A generation of people started to make beer in their garages, hobbyists opened up their own little breweries, and the craft beer movement was born. Among the hobbyists was Sierra Nevada’s founder, Ken Grossman, who had opened a home-brew shop in Chico in 1976.

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