Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sierra Nevada, Beer Camp, and Neo Lexicanus

In June, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company invited Michael Roper and John Wider, co-owner and beverage manager at Hopleaf, respectively, to brew a beer in Chico. Neo Lexicanus, the fruit of their labor, made its debut at the Hopleaf on November 5. It's a lovely India Pale Lager jammed full of the hops available at the venerable Chico brewery. You should check out the photos of the massive hops freezer at Sierra, which are available on the Hopleaf's facebook page. But before I talk about Neo Lexicanus, I want to discuss Sierra Nevada's role in today's craft beer scene.

Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi founded Sierra in 1980. Next to Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada is the longest running microbrewery in the US. It is currently the second largest craft brewery by sales volume. Sierra Nevada can rightly claim to be one of the pioneering breweries that paved the way for those that followed.

Today, there are far more financial resources available to craft breweries willing to tap them. After all, craft beer is a growing and profitable market. Banks, investment groups, and even crowd-sourcing have all funded breweries or expansions. There's a reason that an investment group backed Southern Tier earlier this year to finance an expansion, or that AB/InBev purchased Goose Island in 2011 and Bend, Oregon's 10 Barrel Brewing this past month. There's obviously money to be made in today's growing market. But in 1980, no financial institution or investor was willing to back a pair of upstarts in their unheard of scheme to brew small batches of beer at a time when Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller were practically the only game in town. Grossman and Camusi had to resort to scrounging through their own limited assets (Grossman owned a homebrewing shop that he sold for $15,000) before hitting up friends and family. By 1980, the two had collected enough funds to secure a space and install their brewing equipment--much of it repurposed, self-engineered odds and ends. Utilizing a ten-barrel brewing system, they set themselves to creating the west coast style, roughly 310 gallons at a time.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale debuted in 1981 and is the second best-selling craft beer in America. Back during my formative drinking years, Sierra was my go to option whenever there was only Coors or Bud Light available at a bar. Even though I had no idea that I was drinking a craft beer, I knew it tasted better and was therefore worth the extra couple of dollars. Everyone has had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and it's often the only good option available when trapped in some beer desert. I would suggest that it is a gateway beer between macrobrews and more hardcore craft beer.

Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale is the original hoppy west coast pale ale with its Cascade hops. But it is also probably an afterthought to most drinkers of craft beer today. It certainly isn't a big seller at the Hopleaf, based on my experience. There are two types of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale consumers. The first category are the non-craft beer people who, dragged to a craft-beer venue by friends and feeling overwhelmed, latch onto something familiar. The second type of Sierra drinkers are the old timers who remain loyal to what was probably the only decent beer they could consistently get their hands on for much of their lives. In short, I don't believe that Sierra's flagship is being consumed in venues catering to hardcore craft beer drinkers, but rather by those hovering along its margins in bars that carry both macrobrews with a few microbeer options--although quite a few brewers swear by it. I have no research backing up my assertions, but can honestly say that very few people come to the Hopleaf looking to drink a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Even though craft beer drinkers are perpetually searching for whatever's new, Sierra Nevada remains relevant to the beer scene. Sierra has done an excellent job of appealing to both mainstream tastes and more serious beer aficionados. While Sierra Nevada Pale Ale appeals to a more general audience, many of Sierra's beers are geared toward beer geeks. I really liked the Ovila Abbey Ale series, and Ruthless Rye IPA. Their experimental hop series is fantastic. Kellerweiss flows quickly from our taps whenever it's available. (Beer nerds would do well to remember their fledgling years and recognize that there are many, many new converts to craft beer who still seek out more familiar styles of beer, especially popular German beers). Sierra's beers are well-made and very much worth drinking.

But Sierra is about more than just brewing beers. Craft beer was, and still is, all about community. It sounds cliché, but I've witnessed the truth behind this assertion too frequently to discount it. Most breweries are incredibly generous toward their fellow brewers, whether it be sharing expertise, equipment, or ingredients. Ken Grossman and Sierra have nurtured the fledgling craft beer industry for decades, utilizing Sierra's success to promote local centers of microbrewing throughout the country.

Sierra's leading presence is evident in several ways, but one of the coolest things that the Chico brewery does is Beer Camp. This program brings together lots of breweries and excites plenty of beer drinkers. Probably the best-known element of Beer Camp is the extravagant tour across America that rolled through seven cities from the west to east coasts this summer. It was arguably one of the most exciting beer events of the summer.

But a lesser-known facet of Beer Camp exists. In addition to touring the land, Sierra Nevada brings a number of people to Chico, California where they are able to use the brewery's vast resources to design and brew their own beer. Among those lucky souls invited to Sierra's mothership were Chicago's very own Michael Roper and John Wider (disclaimer: Michael is a Detroit native, and John hails from the very lovely Garden State).

This duo teamed with eight others involved in the beer industry to come up with a beer style, then meet in Chico to brew it at Sierra's impressive facility. While this might sound pretty straight forward, it was much more difficult to agree upon a style. After a long email thread, the group settled on an India Pale Lager. It was summer, and they wanted something relatively light, but packed with flavor. For John, it was a no-brainer to create a hoppy lager, since Sierra has one of the largest caches of hops in the United States. According to John, "It would have been a sin to have access to all these hop varietals and not use them." Style in place, the team met in Chico and spent the day brewing their beer--from milling the grains to pitching the yeast.

Aside from the enormous hops freezer, which is truly a sight to behold, John was really struck by how green Sierra Nevada is. "Their grains are sold to local farmers. They recycle their greenhouse gas output. Their electricity is powered by solar power." This commitment to the environment solidifies Sierra Nevada's place at the forefront of the craft beer industry.

So how is Neo Lexicanus? It's a solid India pale lager that contains a variety of hops, but features Humulus Lupulus Neomexicanus. It pours golden and clear, has a nice head that lasts and leaves good lacing behind. The aroma is citric and very hoppy. The body is light, crisp, and eminently drinkable, though filled with an initial burst of hops. Neo Lexicanus is delicious and is, as of this posting, still available on draft at the Hopleaf.

John prepares to pour a pint of his creation.
My brief history of Sierra Nevada comes from Tom Acitelli, The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution.

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