It’s immediately recognizable, thanks to its distinctive green label announcing “purest ingredients” and “finest quality” and the 12-ounce heritage bottle with the quality-seal cap (use bottle opener). But it’s the concoction of ingredients inside that brings people back again and again and helped grow a once-small brewing operation into a globally recognized brand.
When Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi opened Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California, in 1980, the first beer they made was a stout. Sierra Pale came along shortly after but took almost a dozen tries to get the recipe dialed in to their liking. In his book Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Grossman says the pair spent a lot of time “trying to decide exactly what flavor and aroma profile our flagship beer should have. We knew we needed to create our own style of beer that would stand out as being unique and distinctive.”
It came from testing a number of hops varietals, different malt bills, and even trying several different yeast strains. The recipe today remains faithful to the original with some slight tweaks along the way, but it is wonderfully complex for a relatively simple 5.6 percent ABV, brewed with 2-row pale and caramel malts and Magnum and Perle as bittering hops and Cascade (an American marvel in its own right) as the finishing hops.
Today, where bitterness is a badge of honor, Sierra Pale set the foundation of what was to come. Sierra Pale clocks in at 38 IBUs, a number that might seem impossibly low to some of today’s drinkers. But remember, this was created in an age where there were only a handful of microbrewers, and the beer that ruled the land (not unlike today) was the American lager that mostly used hops as a token ingredient. Budweiser has 7 IBUs.
“Even today, I remember how hoppy and bracingly bitter it was,” says Mitch Steele, the brewmaster at New Realm Brewing who spent a decade at Stone Brewing Co., another California brewery known for pushing the hops envelope. He first visited Sierra Nevada while he was a student at the brewing program at the University of California at Davis.
“They had open-top dairy tanks fermenting beer, [former Sierra Nevada Brewmaster] Steve Dressler was walking around this Frankensteined-together system, and it was just the coolest thing. I bought a mixed case of pale, stout, and porter and just fell in love with everything that small brewing could be.”
“[Sierra Pale] is a lovely, balanced and great, great beer,” says Dan Kenary, the cofounder of Harpoon Brewery. “It was my go-to when I couldn’t get Harpoon IPA. For a lot of my generation of American beer drinkers, Sierra Pale was a recognition that we could do this and make great American beer. When this beer came onto the market, it was an antidote to what we could get in the 1970s and early 1980s.”
Even though Sierra Nevada started out small, its positive reputation grew quickly. Kenary says that when his brewery, founded in 1986, was assembling their flagship IPA, a beer rooted in the British tradition but with an American influence, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale served as an inspiration.
“Sierra Pale awoke a spirit in people, and we knew what beer should be,” says Kenary. “This beer introduced hops to the American palate, and there’s a reason that it still has a cult following: it’s still great to drink.”
The cult following is what brings tens of thousands of people to the brewery’s doors each year. The brewery in Chico, California, is a mecca for many brewers and fans who want to walk through the brewery and experience in person where the beer that launched their love for craft is made.
As large and impressive as the brewery in Chico is, it pales (no pun intended) in comparison to the brewery’s second location in Mills River, North Carolina, which opened in 2012. The sprawling brewing complex has been dubbed “Malt Disney World” by fans, but most employees refer to it as “the House that Pale Built.”
Sierra Nevada now brews more than 1 million barrels of beer annually, and Pale Ale is the clear best seller. It paved the way for hoppier beers such as Torpedo Extra IPA and has served as the base for a line extension, Sidecar, brewed with oranges.
Still, for every new beer that Sierra Nevada releases with an experimental hops or special ingredients, it’s the reliability, familiarity, and just downright refreshing nature of Pale Ale that keeps even the most forward-moving of craft drinkers coming back again and again for pint after pint.
This article first appeared in Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine