Speak to an Australian craft brewer or read one of those articles where they answer ten questions about themselves and you’ll probably find a single common link.
It usually comes about four questions into the conversation or the halfway through the biography and goes something like; “What was the beer that made you decide you wanted to be a craft beer brewer?” or, “What was your ‘epiphany’ beer?”
The beer which seems to feature more often than nearly all the others combined is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. An iconic beer in the craft scene in the United States, it set the standard for what is now commonly known as the American pale ale when first brewed in 1980. Rich amber in colour and full-bodied and complex in character, the date on which it was first brewed could fairly be regarded as D-Day for craft beer.
Why so many Australian brewers quote their first sip of this punchy flavoursome ale as the moment they realised what they wanted to brew upon their return to the great wide brown land is subject to debate. Did they try Sierra Nevada Pale Ale because it was available everywhere or did Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ‘sing to them’ because it was such a well crafted beer?
One suspects the answer lies somewhere between the two.
It certainly has set the benchmark for both consistency and quality and, as a result, has always been widely available. There’s more than a fair chance too that word spread to the intrepid Aussie traveller that this was a beer that ‘you just had to try’. Whichever way our next generation of brewers came upon it, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale provided the inspiration and set the standard.
On November 15th 1980 the first batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale made its way through the Brewhouse that Ken Grossman had cobbled together from old dairy equipment and recycled stainless steel bits and pieces and to which he generously added whole Cascade hop cones, at that time a unique process and one which would come to identify the ‘American style’. Using Perle and Magnum hops in the boil and a combination of pale and caramel malts to achieve depth and balance, it’s no wonder this beer has spawned a thousand copies around the world.
No wonder also that it celebrates its 30th birthday at a time when the brewery is at the top of its game. The all-year-round range features the Pale Ale, Stout and Porter, a Kellerweis and Torpedo (a Pale Ale on hop steroids!) which is complimented by a set of four seasonal releases and four yearly limited releases.
A unique point of difference comes with the breweries extensive raw ingredient production – they not only grow their own barley and hops but have had them certified organic. This, along with the fact that the brewery also provides the machinery* and labour to harvest and process the crop used to make the very limited release Estate Homegrown Ale shows what a high standard Sierra Nevada sets for itself.
Is it too much of a stretch to think that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale alone has been the impetus for many of our own home-grown brewers to develop richly hopped beers most unlike the standard pale golden lagers we were accustomed to? Maybe, but its significance in ‘allowing’ brewers to break away from the same-old, same-old cannot be underestimated. At the very least it can be pin-pointed as the inspiration for many of the craft beers we are beginning to see more of in this country. Just think of Little Creatures Pale Ale or Murray’s Nirvana Pale Ale.
Had the fledgling Australian craft brewer not found Sierra Nevada Pale Ale these beers may still have arrived on our scene – but Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the one which rested an assuring hand on their shoulder and said; “Go on, you can do it!”
Unfortunately, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is not legitimately available in Australia, (Sierra Nevada in now legitimately available in Australia) so today – November 15 – grab a six pack of one of the many great local Sierra Nevada-inspired pale ales and a handful of mates and raise a glass to the beer that, more than any other, has given us many of the flavoursome, full-bodied and interesting craft beers that are gaining a stronger mainstream foothold day by day. And think about the fact that today Sierra Nevada is still leading the way – in innovation, in brewing technology and in environmental impact issues. And they still make some pretty fine beers, too.
It just proves that you can be big and successful and still be ‘craft’.
*When they say ‘machinery’, they mean it in a very ‘old school’ way. The hops and barley are harvested by hand using garden shears and machetes!
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