In 1979, Ken Grossman began planning a small-scale brewery based in Chico and enlisted Paul Camusi as his business partner. Sierra Nevada Brewery opened in the fall of 1980. Camusi retired in 1998 and sold his share in the company to Grossman, who is now sole owner. Sierra Nevada is now the sixth largest brewery in the United States – a remarkable feat given that the company has never advertised on television. This growth is due to the company’s dedication to high quality beers, with the flagship beer being Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. According to the Sierra Nevada website: “Ken knew he wanted to make a hop-forward Pale Ale, but he also knew that the key to convincing people to try the beer and come back for more was consistency. He spent the last of his money and countless months to make sure he could reproduce identical batches of beer. He dumped 10 batches before getting the perfect balance into his Pale Ale, the beer that helped to launch the American craft beer movement and changed the tastes of millions.”
While in Chico, my wife and I took a tour of the brewery. I have taken numerous tours of breweries located throughout the world and this was the best tour so if you are ever in Chico I strongly recommend the brewery tour (which includes free beer samples). Our tour guide was exceptional. Sierra Nevada has been recognized locally, statewide, and nationally for their commitment to reducing environmental impacts and gives Sustainability Tours. We didn’t have time for this tour, but I’ve been told that this tour is also great.
You have to love any brewery that runs a Beer Camp. Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp is geared to developing ideas, including new recipes, techniques, and concepts that result in new beers. To this end Sierra Nevada sponsors a Beer Camp contest focused on getting its biggest and most creative fans to the brewery for a week of in-depth, hands-on learning resulting in “Beer Camp beers”.
Sierra Nevada also created a series of Abbey Ales. As noted by Sierra Nevada’s website, “Ovila® Abbey Ales are a series of Belgian-inspired beers brewed in collaboration with the monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA. An homage to the time-honored monastic brewing tradition, Ovila Abbey Ales combine the quality and craft of those dedicated artisans with a dose of American brewing innovation. Featuring ingredients grown by the monks on the grounds of the abbey, Ovila Abbey Ales are a fresh twist on the ancient brewing tradition.”
During our stay in Chico, we made a couple of visits to Sierra Nevada’s brewery and co-located restaurant so I had the opportunity to sample several of their beers. The restaurant is always very busy so plan accordingly. Indoor and outdoor seating is available (as well as indoor/outdoor bars). I found the indoor seating area to be very noisy and fortunately the weather was cool enough for us choose outdoors. The servers were busy but friendly and attentive. Our first server, Jimi-Lynn, was awesome.
During our visit there were 19 different Sierra Nevada beers available. You can get a sampler of four beers at the restaurant or bar (price per sampler flight was $3 when we were there). I managed to sample 14 beers during our visits. My tasting notes (in no particular order) follow.
Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Belgian-style Black IPA (7.7% ABV / 52 IBUs): This black IPA goes tropical by adding lemony Sorachi Ace and fruity Nelson Sauvin hops varieties. The beer is brewed using Belgian yeast to create an exotic hop profile with fruity flavors. This black IPA pours a dark black with beige foam that leaves a nice lace. The beer has an aroma of roasted malt and coffee with a lemon zest bouquet. Beer Camp Belgian-style Black IPA is medium-bodied with a delightful prickly carbonation. This beer is packed with flavors of roasted malt, lemon zest, coffee, tropical fruit, and dark bread. The finish is dry with mild peppery spice and a lingering hops bitterness. Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Belgian-style IPA provides a wonderfully complex array of flavors that are excellently integrated. Who knew camping could provide such luxurious and tasty fun? I’m pitching my drinking tent here!
Sierra Nevada Beer Camp 93 IPA (6.9% ABV / 60 IBUs): Made with Cascade and Citra hops, this beer pours a clear golden color with white foam. 93 IPA has a mild pine resin and citrus bouquet with hints of tropical fruit. The beer is medium-bodied with mild carbonation. 93 IPA has flavors of malt, lemon, pine, and mango that are topped with a strong hops bitterness. This beer felt a bit weak on my tongue but has a strong malt background with nice integration of hops-created flavors. This is a good beer but it didn’t make me long to go camping.
Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2% ABV / 65 IBUs): Made with Magnum, Crystal, and Citra hops, a friend informed me that Torpedo Extra IPA gets its name from a dry-hopping innovation created by Sierra Nevada that resulted in a device shaped like a torpedo. As noted on Sierra Nevada’s website, Torpedo is the “first beer to feature our “Hop Torpedo”—a revolutionary dry-hopping device that controls how much hop aroma is imparted into beer without adding additional bitterness.” This beer pours a clear amber-gold color with off-white foam that leaves a nice lace. Torpedo has a mild malt aroma with vibrant bouquet of pine, citrus, and tropical fruit. The beer is medium-bodied with an excellent moderate carbonation. Torpedo provides wonderfully assertive pine, citrus, and herbal flavors that are complemented with a dry finish and exquisite bitter back-end sensation. This is a world-class American IPA that has me shouting full speed ahead!
Courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Sierra Nevada Hoptimum Imperial IPA (10.4% ABV / 100 IBUs): Anytime you see the word “Imperial” coupled with a beer style, then you know the brewer’s intent is to “push the envelope” of that particular beer style. With Hoptimum, Sierra Nevada definitely succeeded. Hoptimum features resinous hop varieties Magnum, Chinook, and Simcoe, as well as, a new experimental hop variety exclusive to Sierra Nevada. This beer pours a clear amber-gold color with off-white foam. Hoptimum has an INTENSE pine resin aroma. The beer is full-bodied and clings to your tongue while exhibiting mild carbonation. Hoptimum delivers massively assertive pine resin and cedar flavors with hints of grapefruit pith and tropical fruit. The finish is dry with intense bitterness and some spicy pepper. Hoptimum is a delicious beer that delivers a field of hops in every glass.
Sierra Nevada Ovila Abbey Saison with Mandarin Oranges and Peppercorns (7.5% ABV / 24 IBUs): Made in collaboration with the Abbey of New Clairvaux (the monks at the Abbey make wine but do not brew beer), Ovila Saison includes mandarin oranges that were locally grown, including a portion grown on the grounds of the Abbey. This beer pours a hazy copper-gold color with off-white foam sustained by active bubbling. Ovila Saison has an aroma of oranges, earthy hay/straw, and herbs. The beer is medium-bodied with light to moderate carbonation on the tongue. Ovila Saison has delicious and refreshing flavors of sweet mandarin oranges, malt, earthy hay/straw, herbs, and pepper. The beer has a great fruit and spice finish. Close your eyes, drink this outstanding beer, and be instantly transported to a Belgian farm on a warm summer day.
Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen (4.8% ABV / 15 IBUs): Kellerweis pours a hazy straw color with off-white foam that left a great lace down the glass. The beer has a banana bread and citrus aroma. Kellerweis is light-bodied with mild carbonation. This beer has great malty banana bread and citrus flavors with a semi-dry finish and subtle bitterness. Kellerweis Hefeweizen is light, refreshing, delicious, and outstanding!
Sierra Nevada Kölsch Ale (5.0% ABV / 30 IBUs): Kölsch is a beer style that originated in Cologne, Germany. Sierra Nevada Kölsch is a cold-fermented ale. This beer pours a clear golden straw color with white foam that left a nice lace. Sierra Nevada Kölsch has a very mild citrus aroma. The beer is light-bodied with mild carbonation. Sierra Nevada Kölsch has a light and crisp grapefruit citrus flavor. Sierra Nevada Kölsch is a light, tasty brew that can refresh you during a hot summer day.
Sierra Nevada Summerfest Lager (5.0% ABV / 28 IBUs): Geared for summer drinking, this beer pours a clear straw color with white foam. Summerfest has a light hay/straw aroma. The beer is light-bodied with assertive carbonation. Summerfest has a crisp, clean sweet-malt flavor that finishes with a mild peppery spice. Another good beer for a hot summer day!
Sierra Nevada Ovila Belgian-style Golden Ale (8.5% ABV / 38 IBUs): This beer pours a clear golden color with white foam. Ovila Abbey Golden has an earthy hay/straw aroma with malt background. Abbey Golden flavors include earthy hay/straw, malt, apple, and pear. The beer has a mild peppery spice finish. Abbey Golden does a magnificent job of adhering to the Belgian golden style and is delectable.
Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Imperial Red Ale (8.5% ABV / 95 IBUs): This beer brings West Coast hops assertiveness to red ale style. Imperial Red Ale pours a coffee brown color with deep red hues and a beige foam. The beer has a sweet caramel and toffee aroma. Imperial Red Ale is medium to full-bodied with moderate carbonation. The beer has a bold sweet caramel flavor that is followed by an intense hops bitterness. Imperial Red Ale has a dry finish with lingering hops bitterness that includes citrus. I found this beer to be royally delicious.
Sierra Nevada Draught-Style Pale Ale (5% ABV / 36 IBUs): Sierra Nevada created a draught version of their flagship bottle-conditioned Pale Ale that is slightly sweeter and lower in alcohol content. Draught-style Pale Ale pours a clear golden color with off-white foam that leaves a nice lace. The beer has wonderful pine resin, grapefruit, and floral aromas. Draught-style Pale Ale is light to medium-bodied with light, prickly carbonation. The beer has a nice sweet malt flavor followed with pine resin and citrus. Draught-style Pale Ale has a dry finish with moderate hops bitterness. This is a very drinkable session beer.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6% ABV / 38 IBUs): Sierra Nevada’s flagship beer is a bottle conditioned American classic that is dry-hopped with Cascade hops for aroma and brewed Magnum and Perle hops for bittering. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale pours a clear orange gold color with frothy white foam that leaves a nice lace. This beer has a malty grain aroma with pine resin, grapefruit, and floral bouquet. Pale Ale is medium-bodied with mild carbonation. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has a rich malt flavor with citrus undertones and a dry finish with moderate hops bitterness. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is truly a delicious American classic and gets my vote for America’s National Pale Ale.
Sierra Nevada Porter (5.6% ABV / 32 IBUs): This beer pours a dark brown color with red hue and tan foam. Sierra Nevada Porter has rich aromas of malt, dark bread, and some chocolate. The beer is medium-bodied with mild carbonation. Sierra Nevada Porter has a rich malt flavor with toffee. The beer finishes with a crisp, mild bitterness and hints of cocoa. Sierra Nevada Porter is smooth and easy to drink.
Sierra Nevada Stout (5.8% ABV / 50 IBUs): This beer pours a clear dark black color with red hue and tan foam that left a wonderful lace down the glass. Sierra Nevada Stout has a sweet malt and dark chocolate aroma. The beer is medium-bodied with mild carbonation. Sierra Nevada Stout has rich flavors of coffee, sweet malt, and dark chocolate. The beer has a dry finish with lingering dark chocolate flavor and well-integrated mild hops bitterness. This beer is very smooth and very enjoyable. Give me some vanilla ice cream and I’ll make a float for dessert!
If you are ever near Chico, Sierra Nevada is a required visit. If you live on the east coast, you can rejoice that Sierra Nevada will have a brewery opening in Mills River, NC (about a 20 minute drive from Asheville) by 2014.