Rambling Reviews 1.23.2018: The Sierra Nevada Hop Edition

Welcome to this special installment of Rambling Reviews, covering three recent hop-driven releases from Sierra Nevada. One of the earliest pioneers of craft brewing from the early 80’s, Sierra Nevada has evolved into a multi-billion dollar company while still remaining at or near the forefront of brewing trends normally driven by smaller, nimbler breweries.

If you don’t that’s impressive, consider both of Sierra Nevada’s early craft brewing counterparts, Anchor Brewing and Boston Beer (Sam Adams). Anchor Brewing is still a respected name, but their recent releases have been hit or miss, suggesting more of a game of catch-up. It’s also worth noting Anchor was recently bought by Japanese brewery Sapporo and is considerably smaller than Sierra Nevada, which is still owned by founder Ken Grossman who shows few signs of slowing down. Boston Beer is basically a messy corporation fighting declining stock prices, distracted from their brewing operations as they pump out uninspired ciders and alcopops with seemingly no real idea where to go beyond their flagship Sam Adam’s Vienna Lager released decades ago.SN Hazy IPA

OK, on to the reviews. With considerable fanfare, Sierra Nevada has jumped into hazy IPA race with its new national year-around release, Hazy Little Thing.  Given the notoriously short shelf life of hazy IPAs, it’s pretty ambitious national roll-out fraught with risks.  (It’s worth noting the much maligned Boston Beer is also rolling out a hazy IPA .) As you may know, when it comes to hazy IPAs, I generally hate those things. My take on Hazy Little Thing is….well, it’s OK. It definitely has the orange juice thing going, with a pith note on the aftertaste in otherwise, simple uncluttered brew. I’ve done some soul searching as to why I rarely like the hazy IPAs others adore. I can deal with hazy but huge amounts of detritus in suspension is pretty off-putting. I also miss the bright, sharp hop flavors that get muddled in the haze, and besides, late hop additions create juicy flavors just fine without all the floating crap. I’m not really the right guy to be reviewing this, but I suppose if I find any hazy IPA to be OK, that’s a ringing endorsement. So if you like beer with a bunch of crud floating in it that tastes like muddy orange juice, you’re going to love Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing.

A far more successful release in my never humble opinion is Sierra Nevada’s new spring seasonal Hop Bullet Double IPA. Now this is an IPA, and without that hazy shit. There’s some sweetness to it, with light citrus and soft pine that harmonizes effortlessly, the neutral malt quietly supporting it all in the background. In Hop Bullet, Sierra Nevada uses plenty of Magnum, which are overlooked, underrated hop that really shine in this brew. At 8.0% abv, it’s not one of those booze-bombs Double IPAs, it’s just a very solid beer, well put together.

IMG-4918We finally come to my favorite of the trio, Sierra Nevada 2017 Estate Ale, an IPA made with both Estate-grown hops and barley. Beer terroir is nebulous, emerging concept given that most beers throughout the United States are brewed with barley and hops coming from the same place:  The barley from the high plains of central North American and hops from the Pacific Northwest. Sierra Nevada’s Estate IPA, made with ingredients grown in Northern California, has flavors all of its own. It’s a very balanced brew, with  black current dominating with a gentle piney background, a slight caramel note from the toasted malt, with a touch of resin emerging at the finish. A unique combination of flavors that suggests a lot of great opportunities are in store as new regions for barely and hop growing start flourishing.

 

Rambling Reviews 1.30.2017: Guinness Nitro IPA and Sierra Nevada’s Tropical Torpedo

Just a quick editorial announcement: Moving forward, these “Rambling Reviews” posts will not be limited to a review of three beers. I expect to be posting review in the neighborhood of 1-4 brews at a time. I won’t bore you with the reason for this, other than to say that three was never really a magic number, and reviewing three beers at a turned out to bit limiting.

OK, now that’s out of way, I have a couple new IPAs to ramble about.

Some of the most most fun I’ve have drinking an IPA in a long time comes from Guinness in their recently released Nitro IPA in a can. Long synonymous with their iconic Stout, they just couldn’t resist the temptation to release an IPA that are all the rage these days. It’s brewed in the traditional English style, which I found to be a breath of fresh air compared to all the big, bombing California IPA’s I’m used to. It’s got that nitro do-hicky thing to create the cascading tiny bubbles. The hop character is rather leafy and tea-like, and there’s this wonderful interplay between the caramel malt, velvety carbonation, and subdued hops. At 5.8% abv at 40 ibus, less is definitely more. I’m a fan, and beers like this help me understand why some are aghast at what Americans did to the classic English IPA.

Those who prefer the American version of the IPA will find themselves on familiar territory with Sierra Nevada’s latest gem, Tropical Torpedo. It’s very tropical. Mango and pineapple dominate the flavor profile bursting of fruit.  The malt is left to be a neutral substrate supporting all those hop flavors.  Not much more to say, and really no surprises here coming from Sierra Nevada. The Chico brewery may be a craft beer dinosaur, but they still find multiple ways to be at, or at least near, the cutting edge of American brewing. Impressive.

Rambing Reviews 8.11.2015: Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest, 21st Amendments Batch #0001 and Strike Irish Red

Once again it’s time to ramble on about a three California beers hitting the streets lately.

First up, Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest, brewed in collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele of Augsburg Germany. What can say about this, it’s brewed in the classic Oktoberfest fashion. Lightly toasted malt, a whisper of hops, clean, restrained flavors. A little more on the pale side than other Oktoberfests. No flavor explosion here, beers like this are about tradition and technique. This one delivers.

21st Amendment Brewmasterer Sean O’Sullivan
pouring Batch 0001 (from a online video)

Next up is 21st Amendment’s Batch #0001, the first batch of beer produced from their new San Leandro brewery. Well, you can’t say you weren’t warned. This IPA is a little off, like they hadn’t quite figured out the new brewing equipment. When I first sampled this during the brewery’s opening ceremonies, there was a certain magic in tasting the very first beer flowing from the tanks. I thought it tasted a little weak back then, but it seemed quite indelicate to bring that up with all the festivities going on. Weeks later, I found Batch #0001 at my neighborhood hangout, so ordered a pint. Disconnected from that opening day thrill, the beer still reveals itself to be a weak and unbalanced. The malt is thin, largely overwhelmed by the hops which, save for a little tangerine character, aren’t particularly flavorful and dominated by a murky bitterness. If you’d like to sample a piece of local brewing history, well then go for this. But on taste alone, you’ll easily find plenty of better brews.

Finally, there’s Colossus of Clout Irish Red Ale from Strike Brewing. (Strike has apparently started naming their beers.)  It’s not a session beer at 6.5% abv, but it feels that way. It’s highly drinkable mix of lots of dry caramel and toasted with a good amount of fruity esters that’s flavorful, but not highly distracting. It’s what these types of beers are supposed to be.

(Picture taken from Strike Brewing Instagram)

Rambling Reviews 5.7.2015: Hermitage 07270 Single Hop IPA, Sierra Nevada’s Idaho 7 Single Hop IPA, and Gordon Biersch Zwickel Pils

Time once more to delve into some new brews, this time the theme is beers brewed with only one or two different hops.

Let’s start with Hermitage Brewing’s  07270 Single Hop IPA.  The beers in the Hermitage single hop IPA series are great way to learn a lot about all the different hops and their flavor characteristics.  But truth be told, after trying a lot of them, I’m left thinking “Hmmm….that’s interesting” instead of “I’ll have another”.  While each beer in the series showcases each unique hop flavor profile, it also proves that brewers are wise to use blends of hops, rather than a single hop, to generate more complex and well rounded flavors.  The beers in Hermitage Single Hop IPAs certainly taste good, but often seem to be lack a certain something, coming across as tasting unbalanced or incomplete, and ultimately seem like well executed brewing experimenst.

That’s absolutely not the case with  Hermitage’s 07270 Single Hop IPA, as the 07270 hop really works well on its own here.  The strong tropical mango flavors that really pop with an earthy, resiny finish. It’s every bit as good as Hermitage’s Citra IPA, the only single hop IPA that’s made it into their year round line-up.

And what’s 07270 hop anyway?   It’s a recently bred hop variety from Hopsteiner, a hop supplier from the Pacific Northwest, which apparently hasn’t given it a more evocative, hop appropriate name like “Calypso” or “Galaxy” yet.  A name like “07270” sounds like a piece of computer equipment but whatever they want to call it, I just hope Hermitage decides to brew this year ’round.

Speaking of single hop IPAs, there’s Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Single Hop IPA – Idaho 7.  Apparently they grow more in Idaho besides potatoes, since as you might have guessed, the hop in this brew is from Idaho. It’s another hop that works pretty well all by itself.  There is a noticeable progression of taste with each sip, as the initial bright grapefruit flavors give way to a fruity apricot character that eventually subsides to a resiny finish. Another great exploration into the seemingly endless hop flavor frontier, but I’m left with the nagging feeling if just seemed if a little extra depth from some other hop was brought into this beer, it would really sing.

And finally, there’s Gorden Biesrch Zwickel Pils, an unfiltered Pilsner made with not one but two hops, Hallertau and Tettnang.  Man, did those two hops work well together.  Beers like this are a reminder that amazing things can be accomplished by “just” using top ingredients coupled technically sound brewing techniques.  This beer is just classic, with a robust clear malt with the slightest bit of sweetness driven with sharp, crisp grassy and slight spicy hops. Makes most other lager style beers seem mediocre and demonstrates a lot of great hop flavors can be achieved at just 30 ibu.

California’s Drought hasn’t affected its breweries…..at least not yet

This water percolation pond near my home replenishes the
underwater aquifer.  It’s  normally full this time of year

Listening to all the news about California’s drought, most people aren’t thinking about beer.  Perhaps they should.  It takes a lot of water to brew beer.  To produce each pint of beer, a typical brewery consumes five pints of water, used mostly to clean and sanitize the brewing equipment.  Factor in the water required to grow the barley and hops and somewhere between 8 and 24 gallons of water is required to produce a single pint of beer, depending on what part of the world the barley and hops originates.   So it stands to reason that California’s breweries could be greatly affected by California’s current drought.

Beer Might Start Tasting Funny
There is concern at Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewery that Sonoma County may switch its water supply from the Russian River to more mineral heavy ground water from wells.  “It would be like brewing with Alka-Selzer,” says Jeremy Marshall, head brewer at Lagunitas describing this to NPR News recently.    The mineral composition of water can have a dramatic effect on the taste of the beer.  Historically, most traditional European regional styles were partly a function of the flavor profile imparted from region’s unique water mineral content.    Today, most modern breweries carefully monitor and sometimes modify their water to better control the flavors imparted by the hops, malt, and yeast.
For breweries that normally rely on surface water, a switch to ground water due to the limited water supply may result in a decidedly different flavored brew.   Some breweries simply don’t have the resources to modify hard well water, resulting in possible off-flavors in their beer.  So if beer from your favorite brewery start tasting a little funny this year, it may be from the water.  Of course, given that drought leads to widespread starvation and disease in other parts of the world, funny tasting beer is a decidedly “first world” problem. 
Water Conversation Efforts
Like many breweries, Sierra Nevada is actively finding ways to reduce their water footprint in light of the current drought.  “You’d be surprised how much water we save with automatic shut-off controls that turn off the hoses when they aren’t being used,” remarks Cheri Chastain, Sustainability Manager at Sierra Nevada.    Other efforts involve modifying the chemistry of their cleaning systems to reduce water usage and removing lawns around the brewery and non-drought resistant plants on the brewery grounds.  In one initiative, water used in Sierra Nevada’s bottling line to rinse the bottles was recycled used to cool the vacuum pumps dispensing beer into the bottles, saving an estimated 2 million gallons a year.  “We’ve seen a 10% drop in our water consumption as a result of these efforts,” explains Chastain.
Since Sierra Nevada relies on ground water rather than surface water, their operations have not been interrupted.   Some breweries that use surface water may face either voluntary or mandatory reductions of their water usage by as much as 25%.     This may not be a problem for the craft brewing industry since Tom McCormick, Executive Director of the California Breweries Association recently told Craft Brewing Daily that “Most brewers feel that they can cut back 20 to 25 percent of water use without dramatically affecting operations or cutting back on production.”
Sierra Nevada has not experienced any disruptions in their supply of hops and barley malt, since more than 90% of their hops is supplied from farms in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, states that have experienced relatively normal weather patterns.   Most of the barley that’s malted to brew beer at Sierra Nevada is grown in Eastern Montana and North Dakota, which have also experienced normal weather.  Most breweries source hops and malted grain from these same locations.
So the good news is that while it’s possible some beer might start tasting a little different, there’s not going to be any shortage of it. 
California Hop Farmer Marty Kuchinski
(photo from Ruhstaller)

A California Hop Farmer Keeps It’s Fingers Crossed

Marty Kuchinski is one of the few hop farmers in California.  His farm is located near Mount Konocti in  California’s Lake County, where the volcanic soils provide an ideal location for his 200 acres of organic hops to grow.   Marty’s customer list reads like a who’s who of California brewers, and includes Russian River, Bear Republic, Speakeasy Brewing, and Ruhlstaller.   “I’m just hoping my ground water doesn’t run out,” he confides.  While he confidently sees his crop size remaining on target, he concedes that this growing season will be uncharted territory.  “Everyone seems to be hanging in there….so far”, summing up the feelings of area farmers.

A Wake Up Call for Climate Change
While it’s likely California’s brewing industry will survive the current drought largely unscathed, it’s definitely a wake-up call.  Breweries are realizing water is more precious, turning to water conservation efforts or working with local officials to ensure a reliable water supply. 
For example, Bear Republic recently paid the City of Cloverdale a half-million dollars to fund drilling of two new wells so that it could expand their brewery to meet increased sales demand.  Otherwise, Bear Republic would have to leave the city in order to meet their expansion plans due to the limited water resources available.    As Bear Republic owner Richard Norgrove Sr. declared in a press release, “We have to be good stewards of what we are attempting to do. We aren’t trying to take water from anyone else, we are willing to pay for it.”
The decline in California’s Central Valley Water Table
as shown in a USGS report.

While this encouraging, we cannot simply drill our way out of this problem over the long term.  According to a recent US Geological Survey, since 1960 the ground waterstorage of the California’s Central Valley has declined by nearly 60 millionacre-feet, enough water to supply every resident in the state of California for eight years.   In some places in the Central Valley, the ground drops by a foot each year due to the drop in the ground water table. Couple this with anticipated warming temperatures due to human activity and the problem multiplies.    “Ground water is recharged by the snowpack, and the snow pack will be decreasing,” as Sierra Nevada’s Cheri Chastain explains a consequence of climate change.  “We realize we all need to prepare for that.” 

Returning to the Source: 2nd Pilgrimage to Sierra Nevada

It’s not just a brewery, to me it’s the Mecca of craft beer.  Maybe because it’s so far away, yet within a day trip where I live, is why I find visiting Sierra Nevada to be a pilgrimage.   It’s like going to the source of where the craft beer revolution started.  And yes, you could really argue the Mecca of craft beer is Anchor’s brewery.   Except its current location is not where Fritz Maytag transformed a dying brewery into one the transformed the American brewing landscape.  But then, you can also say that about the current Sierra Nevada brewery location and Ken Grossman’s pioneering work.  Maybe because Anchor’s Brewery is a short trip for me to San Francisco that makes it seem more accessible, and therefore seemingly less mystical.

I’m rambling.  I do that when attempting to be profound about something I feel reverent about. Somehow, Sierra Nevada feels like where the craft beer revolution all started, even though logically, you could argue Anchor is the place.   I just can’t quite express why into words.    So I’ll stop rambling and just show you a bunch of pictures I snapped on the Sierra Nevada brewery tour.  It’s been over three years since I first made this pilgrimage.  I just hope I don’t have to wait another three years to come back.

Pilgrimage to a Craft Brewing Shrine at Sierra Nevada

Maybe there should be some sort of craft beer Mecca, a spiritual journey each individual in the craft beer community must take in their lifetime. And while there are plenty of breweries in Europe that could rightfully lay claim to be the Mecca of craft brewing, it’s hard to think of a better Mecca for the US craft brewing revolution than Sierra Nevada’s Brewery in Chico, California, which Ken Grossman founded 30 years ago.

I recently travelled to Chico, but it was foot fungus, rather than craft beer that brought me there. I was there on business, helping a customer as they were commercializing a laser based foot fungus treatment. Once that meeting was completed and with no further business to attend at the end of the day, I drove across town to check out the brewery, hoping to have a look before heading home. To my pleasant surprise upon my arrival, there was a brewery tour scheduled to start about ten minutes, and acting fast, I secured a spot on it.

Giddy with the excitement of a five year old on Christmas morning, I went to the very front of the line as we marched around the brewery, and enthusiastically raised my hand every time our guide asked audience participation questions like “Does anyone know what wort tastes like?”. As brewery tours go, it’s one of the better ones, as our guide was pretty knowledgeable, and well trained to show people around the place.

The most impressive fact I learned is that Sierra Nevada generates 85% of the energy to run their brewery either with solar cells, or natural gas based fuel cells which have a low carbon footprint. Imagine the impact if every factory in the United States, if not the world, made even half this commitment to more sustainable sources of energy that Sierra Nevada has. The brewery has all sorts of little flourishes with frescos and etched tiles on the walls depicting the history of brewing.

I do not claim to be much of a photographer, but gave my best for these pictures to give this shrine of craft beer the reverence it deserves.