Behind the beer that launched a thousand breweries

It was 5 a.m. on November 15, 1980, when Ken Grossman flipped on the lights in his small converted warehouse in Chico, California. Before him wasn’t much to look at: a mill, a brewhouse, a fermenter, a bottling line, all acquired secondhand and all piecemealed together by the 26-year-old homebrewer heading pro. But looks can be deceiving, and history is rarely marked with signposts. What would transpire here would ripple out over the next four decades, and Grossman’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. would lead the charge.

But first, Grossman would have to brew. Five barrels of stout to be specific: a test batch he and cofounder Paul Camusi settled on, hoping the dark ale would hide any beginner imperfections. They needn’t have worried. The stout turned out fine, and it gave them the encouragement they needed. Now they could turn their attention to the beer they intended to plant their flag on all along, Pale Ale.

Few beers are as deserving of the label “iconic” as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In his 2013 memoir, Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Grossman writes, “We knew we needed to create our own style of beer that would stand out as being unique and distinctive.” At the time, mass-market lager was the ubiquitous beverage of Americans, but the burgeoning craft beer revolution began laying inroads. English-inspired ales (stout, porter, bitter) were the bread and butter of the few craft breweries around at the time (including Boulder Beer). But Grossman wanted to Americanize Sierra Nevada beer. So he turned to the Cascade hop — the first U.S.-bred aroma hop from the USDA’s hop breeding program.

Known for their love of hops, a Sierra Nevada brewer fills one of their “torpedoes” with whole cone hops. All photos courtesy Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Cultivated in Corvallis, Oregon, and initially released in 1971, Cascade imparts floral and citrusy aromas and a flavor that vacillates between grapefruit and pine. Furthermore, Grossman decided on using whole cone hops for the beer and a relatively neutral yeast strain that wouldn’t mask either the Cascades or the dollop of sweet crystal malt in the grist.

Though it would take another decade and change for beer drinkers to fully embrace hoppy beers, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale proved to be a winner, and the beer’s success translated into financial stability for Sierra Nevada and legitimacy for the larger craft beer movement. Imitations of the beer were legion, and the brew helped lay the ground work for what many now call West Coast-style.

Grossman and company (Camusi was bought out in 1998) would continue to play with hops, creating another legacy in 1981: Celebration Fresh Hop IPA, and again in 2009 with Torpedo Extra IPA, with the latter using a specially fabricated contraption to extract the maximum amount of essential hop oils out of the flower without extracting excess amounts of bitterness.

And while hops, hop usage and hopping rates have exploded in the brewing scene, Sierra Nevada brewers have managed to stay relevant without sacrificing legacy. Pale Ale continues to rate as one of the world’s top beers, and the company continues to inspire new generations of brewers. Grossman still owns Sierra Nevada (the slogan “Family owned, operated & argued over” is printed on each bottle and can), and the brewery produces over 1 million barrels of beer a year, making it the third-largest craft brewery in America.

‘Purest ingredients’ and ‘finest quality’

Grossman and Camusi brewed their first batch of Pale Ale on Nov. 21, but it would take another 10 batches before they were ready to head to market. The target was consistency out of the gate, and it paid off in spades. There have been slight tweaks to the recipe to account for changes in malt and hops over the decades, but the Pale Ale you drink today is more or less the same Pale Ale you would have drank in the ’80s.

And it’s still an incredible beverage: A rocky pile of foam atop a crystal clear caramel-colored brew, snappy grapefruit and fresh pine on the nose, sweet and cooling malt in the mouth, prickling hops throughout and bright bitterness on the back. Drink it out of the bottle, and you’ll get a slight breadiness on the nose (courtesy of the bottle-conditioning). Drink it out of the can, and the hops burst with fruity freshness. As the label states, Pale Ale is made from the “purest ingredients” of the “finest quality.” You could drink this beer day-in, day-out and never grow tired of the subtle nuances (some of us have tried). It’s a Mary Poppins beer: Practically perfect in every way.

This article first appeared in Boulder Weekly.

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