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May 24, 2011 05:39 PM

Sierra Nevada and the arms race....

Sierra has been one of my fave breweries for many years. So much so that when travelling in No Cali back in 93 I made a detour to the tap room in Chico for "lunch". Since so many brewers are experimenting and releasing all sorts of cool, interesting hybrids it seems that some "old line" craft brewers feel left out.

I adore the Pale Ale, still the best version of this style made anywhere, Celebration, well the originator of the hop blast, the underrated stout and the gone but not forgotten Pale Bock (sniff, sniff, loud cries). So Sierra decides to climb aboard the train or lay down a parallel track for all sorts of new brews. Sadly, none of them float my boat. Glissade bock hah, Torpedo IPA, wtf?, the Brewers camp series, and now the final straw for me, Ovila Dubbel.

Not one of these beers did anything for me and in some cases left me mad and sad. Mad, cause the larger bottles aren't cheap and sad 'cause their core range is still so great.

Anybody else feel the same way?

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  1. I share your love for Sierra Pale Ale (always some in my fridge) and Celebration Ale (possibly my favorite beer of all time – I always find myself anxiously looking forward to its release in the late fall). I also am not a big fan of the Torpedo IPA, which I find to be bitter in a sharp, astringent manner, which I don’t care for in IPAs. That being said, I think Sierra has done some fantastic work in their limited selections, and based on what you’ve written, I’d urge you to seek out both/either their Southern and/or Northern “Hemisphere Harvest” beers, which are wonderful IPAs, fresh tasting, floral, subtle and flavorful. They are in the large, less economical bottles, but I've seen them on tap occasionally, and they're worth the occasional splurge, to me at least. Cheers.

    3 Replies
    1. re: tomjb27

      My take on Sierra Nevada is that they make good, but not great beers at an affordable price. The Pale Ale is fine, Torpedo is ok for it's style at that price range, Glissade is average at best, Kellerweiss is decent but nowhere near as good as a number of other beers of it's type such as Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier , Celebration is not very interesting to me as it's a one dimensional hopcentric beer but that appeals to some people, and Ovila was fair from the bottle and slightly better on tap.

      As for the Ovila, it's another shining example of a non Belgian brewer trying to make a Belgian influenced beer and coming up short of it's Belgian made counterparts. It would be all well and good if they offered it for say, $5.99 a bottle. However it's priced the same as the Belgian beers, and it falls short in my opinion. I can buy a Westmalle Dubbel for the same price, and the Ovila is not in the same league as the Westmalle, or a number of other similar Belgian beers.

      All in all, as for Sierra Nevada's "normal" offerings (Pale Ale, Stout, Porter, Kellerweiss, Torpedo) they are fairly priced and I feel you get a decent return on your dollar spent. Again, no revelatory beers here, but when the funds are low you could do worse than to pick these up.

      1. re: Whisper

        While I agree that Ovila is not very good, I wouldn't draw a larger conclusion about non-Belgian vs. Belgian brewers. There are several breweries around the world making good, and often great, Belgian-style beers. Russian River, Allagash, Brooklyn, Avery, Captain Lawrence, Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, and Unibroue all make really good Belgian-style beers that I'd put up against anything from Belgium.

        1. re: Josh

          I must respectfully disagree, but of course it's all a matter of taste.

          Russian River? Check. They are a fantastic brewery and I would also put up just about everything they make against the Belgians.

          Allagash? An excellent brewery and they do make a couple of very nice Belgian influenced beers.

          Among the others you mentioned I've not tried any by Captain Lawrence that I can recall, but have had beers by the others with mixed results. I've had quite a few by the Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, Avery, Unibroue and a few from Brooklyn and while there was some success to varying degrees I'd rank them a notch below Allagash and two or three notches below Russian River. Just my opinion of course.

    2. I think Celebration may be the best widely distributed, reasonably priced craft beer there is. I find it both malty and hoppy at the same time - a big flavored beer that remains in balance and stays drinkable bottle after bottle.

      I'm not a huge fan of them going off in different directions - what are they up to now about 5 different yeasts in production vs. two a little over a year ago? I always appreciated that they knew what they did well and just did it without the need to pander to the craft beer ticker crowd. But so far, quality control has not gone south like other microbrewers who try to be everything to everyone.

      As a long term beer geek - its surprising to me that very few breweries can offer reasonably priced, quality, and consistent craft beers like Sierra Nevada on such a wide scale. Except for homebrew and a few bombers of local high abv beers each year, SN is basically all I buy from the beer store - I counted up that I bought almost 20 cases of SN beer last year with Glissade and Celebration making up more than half of those purchases.

      I really enjoyed the Wiezenbock and the black spruce beer in the SN Beer Camp 12 pack. I thought the Cali common was just ok, and the DIPA was good, but not in the top tier of DIPA's.

      Not interested in their $10+ big bottles - have yet to buy one, including the anniversary series.

      6 Replies
      1. re: LStaff

        I agree...Sierra Nevada is definitely one of the better crafties out there and their great products are proof that so called "craft" beer doesn't have to break the bank. My beer consumption, like yours, is mostly homebrew (which I still prefer over _any_ commercial product) and Sierra products are on the _very_ short list of commercial beers I'll buy occasionally. I especially like the Celebration...consistently fine stuff, that.

        1. re: LStaff

          The brews that I love from Sierra are to my taste maybe the best representatives of their styles. Outside of the dearly departed Pyramid Pale, I have yet to find a pale ale that is just so right. I understand why SN is expanding their portfolio but...if you're gonna do it, do it right. Anybody who thinks that SN PA is a gateway beer or macro like is just plain nuts. It takes way more skill to make a subtle beer than a hop bomb. reminds me of all the bad Thai places that just throw on chilli and onions and folks go oh and ah because of the "bite". Remember, today's college kids and post college kids love PBR because it's so contrary and because it's cheap. I will continue to drink the core brews (PA, Celebration & Stout) but when experimenting or going for other styles well I'll go elsewhere.

          1. re: MOREKASHA

            I think SN PA is, by definition, a gateway beer since for so many people on the west coast that was their introduction to hoppy beer.

            Do you think it takes skill to make a hoppy IPA?

            1. re: Josh

              Hmmm, I've never thought of SN as a gateway beer, guess since I've always experiemented with my brews. Hoppy, skills? Some, but since we live in a time of open source, total access to every thing etc...perhaps too many brewers are runnign before they can walk, then again, if so many folsk love these beers then they must be doing something right...

            2. re: MOREKASHA

              >>It takes way more skill to make a subtle beer than a hop bomb.<<

              The more I brew my own, the more I appreciate a well-made commercial Pale Ale (like Sierra's). Nowadays, the first thing I like to try from a new (at least to me) brewery is their PA; if they can't get that right, there's a good chance their other offerings aren't going to be that great (Stone IMO being a notable exception to this).

              1. re: healthyscratch

                If in doubt about a brewers offering, I'll try their stout. Most of the time it's fairly drinkable.

          2. I enjoy almost everything Sierra Nevada produces. I especially like their Kellerweiss and dont really understand how anyone can say they dont think too much of it because its not like the best German Wheat beers in the world. Well ok but its certainly one of the best American wheats Ive tasted in a long time (and American wheats are notorious for being mediocre at best in my opinion so when I can find a nice one for relatively cheap Im a happy camper). But honestly the Kellerweiss is the only SN beer I get with any regularity. I might get a case of the Pale Ale once per year or so or the occasional sixer of Glissade which I also liked. But otherwise, unless I run into it on tap and Im in the mood, theres so much else out there to try that I dont find myself regularly buying SN stuff. Ill have a Celebration (preferably on tap) each time it comes out just to see how that year's version tastes but I dont go crazy over that release like so many seem to. And the Torpedo is fine but tastes fairly similar to the Celebration to me. The wet hop big beers theyve been coming out with are very good too but just part of the million big hoppy monster bottles you can find in any good beer store now.

            So Im certainly in no way disappointed by the SN choices I see today as you seem to be. I think they are all good. Its just theres so much out there that SN gets overlooked because I know it so well and theres only so much money and time available to beer buying.

            And not directed toward this comment at all but I have to say I also dont understand the sentiment among so many younger/newer beer enthusiasts these days that Sierra Nevada (and Sam Adams) are essentially training wheel craft beers and not worthy of speaking about in the same sentence as the "greats". Although they do tend to get excited about the hoppier stuff SN puts out. How utterly ridiculous and infuriating...

            15 Replies
            1. re: Insidious Rex

              In the age of flavor stupid and attention grabbing one-offs, specials, and collaborations, its easy to see why SN may get lost with the current craft beer "in" crowd. Hence the reason why I think they are starting to go in different directions. Wish they didn't think they have to in order to keep pace as I would much prefer to see breweries find their niche, exploit it to its fullest while keeping strict control on freshness, consistency, and quality while becoming more effecient operations in order to keep prices in check. Would be a refreshing approach to the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type breweries that are common in the craft beer industry today.

              Its interesting to see the opinions of those who have always had craft beer on the shelves since they turned legal drinking age vs. those that started out drinking mass produced lagers and imports. IMO old timers have more respect for breweries that can deliver consistent quality, while recent entrants seem to demand flavor above all else. Maybe its a disposable income thing - but I have wasted enough money on craft beer over the years that just weren't fresh or well made to be rolling the dice everytime I shop for beer. I just want something I can rely on in the style I prefer to drink that day.

              What I find frustrating is when recent enthusiasts seem to go out of their way to say that they appreciate lagers - like Prima Pils or dopplebocks - and think something like Glissade or Summerfest is akin to drinking Bud. No appreciation for depth and subtleties or craftmanship - just big flavor.

              Not so secretly hoping that there comes a time when the rate of increase of craft beer sales starts to slow and brewers have to go back to relying on flagship type beers for their market gains - and will have to do something to engage the repeat buyer.

              1. re: LStaff

                Which breweries would you say have a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach?

                I hang out with a lot of craft beer people and Sierra Nevada, at least here, gets a tremendous amount of respect.

                1. re: Josh

                  DFH, Stone, Port/Lost Abbey, Goose Island to name a few big names in craft.

                  1. re: LStaff

                    I would dispute that those breweries exhibit that characteristic, but even if I did agree, that's four breweries out of dozens, which I think would make it something short of a trend that could be generalized about.

                    While I'm not a fan of all of Stone's beers, there are some in their lineup that I think are reliably good, which are made as well as any other brewery's for their styles. Smoked Porter, IPA, Old Guardian, Russian Imperial Stout, Pale Ale, and Levitation are all very good examples of their respective styles. Would you say that they have not mastered these styles of beer?

                    Lost Abbey, for all their flaws and issues with under-carbonated bottles in some of their line, pretty clearly is working the Belgian-style across their line, which would seem to put them out of the jack-of-all-trades category. And if you look beyond their over-hyped speciality releases to their standard core lineup, many of those beers are reliably good as well. Red Barn, Lost & Found, Judgment Day, and Devotion are consistently good beers. Cable Car and Duck Duck Gooze, if you can get your hands on them, are very well-made Belgian-style sours that compare favorably to any other sour beer I can think of.

                    DFH is another one I find puzzling for its inclusion, because while they do make a lot of weird and experimental one-offs, they also have a stable lineup of reliably well-made beers like the 60 Minute IPA, Indian Brown, Chicory Stout, Aprihop, Palo Santo Marron, Festina Peche, and Punkin. Again, I think that number of solid beers in the lineup makes it hard to tag them with the master-of-none label.

                    Now, I do live in an area where we get a lot of the beers produced by these breweries, so it may be that I've had more of their offerings than you have, and I could certainly understand holding that opinion if you've only had the above breweries' weirder offerings, and/or poorly handled/stored/old bottles. There are beers made by all those guys I've had that have not been to my liking, or anything I'd want to drink, but I think it's a mistake to draw a larger conclusion than that, and look at it as some kind of sign of flawed processes on their part.

                    1. re: Josh

                      Hey josh, off subject but what do you think of Caldera's offerings?

                      1. re: bbqboy

                        I actually haven't tried any. There are some available at my local Whole Foods, but I don't know much about their offerings. Is there one in particular you'd recommend?

                        1. re: Josh

                          I drink the Amber, but for purposes of this thread I suppose I would say the
                          Pale Ale. They are my local brewery and mostly concentrate on their Pale ale, India Pale Ale, and Amber, though they do put a few others in bombers and have several others on tap around town.
                          Just struck me that they are sort of like the young Sierra Nevada, guys who are just interested in brewing good beer, at least at this point.

              2. re: Insidious Rex

                The Kellerweiss is a perfectly fine beer. I had some on tap a couple weeks back and really enjoyed it much more than the bottled version.

                But when I'm in the beer store looking at Kellerweiss selling for about $7 a sixer and next to it is Weihestephaner Hefe for only a dollar or two more, it's not even a contest. I think the Weihestephaner is by far a better beer. Do a truly blind taste test some time and tell me if you don't agree. The Weihestephaner's body and mouthfeel is markedly better, and it has a more full and less watered down taste.

                1. re: Whisper

                  I dont think we are far apart on what we are saying I just couldnt understand how you could denigrate the Kellerweiss simply because it doesnt hold up to the standards of what we BOTH apparently consider one of the best wheat beers on EARTH. I absolutely agree with you if I sit down at a bar and they have the Weihestephaner on tap next to the Kellerweiss I will almost always order that without hesitation if Im in a wheat beer mood (so a blind taste test isnt necessary and actually Im most partial to Paulaner anyway). But the logic to your argument is that theres never any other reason to drink anything other than the best beer available of its style. Well I think there can be more than one good even great beer of a style available. I especially want to celebrate solid American wheat beers because I think they have a tendency to be average to poor as a rule in my opinion. So the Kellerweiss was a happy surprise for me when I first tried it. And it has enough of its own distinct taste that I dont find a need to choose one over the other each time anyway. And it sounds like the price point difference in my area is a little greater than what it is in your area. I can get a case of Kellerweiss here for $33. A case of Weihestephaner will cost me $45 and often isnt nearly as fresh.

                  1. re: Insidious Rex

                    I used to love Sierra Nevada's plain ol' American Wheat beer. Always found it to be a tasty brew.

                    1. re: Josh

                      Yeah wasnt it in like a red bottle? I cant really remember what it tasted like. Did you ever try their Kolsh? Theres a style Id like to see more of by solid brewers like SN and others.

                      1. re: Insidious Rex

                        Yep, red label. Very clean-tasting and light.

                        1. re: Josh

                          I liked that too. I used to encounter it in the late 90s.

                  2. re: Whisper

                    A timely article I just ran across:

                    "Yes, we have American wheats, but given that the yeast is one of the main flavoring components, our versions taste empty. Domestic attempts at the real thing have fallen short, in my experience."

                    1. re: Insidious Rex

                      I'd have to disagree with that. American Wheat is simpy a different beer. And I don't view the absence of clove/banana as a bad thing at all.

                2. I'd say that at this point in my life, my approach to purchasing beer has become quite similar to that used to buy wine. To start, there are those things I know, I like, and I buy repeatedly. Twenty-five years of familiarity with some of these has bred some comfort for me with, SNPA, Anchor Steam, Stoudts' Scarlet Lady, Yuengling Porter, etc.

                  I'll purchase beers based upon the brewery once, but have no problem dismissing offerings that are not to my liking. SN's Dubbel and Dogfish's Indian Brown stand out as examples. I enjoy watching the various, established brewers try different styles, but frequently they disappoint. Eventually, it would seem, market forces will help slide brewers back to making more of what they do best. This is a pretty nascent industry.

                  Given how much information and diversity is available, educated consumption seems obligatory. Moreover, attentive consumption is extremely important. I wouldn't buy a bottle of wine if I notice signs of cork leakage. Nor, would I buy a four pack of DFH 90 Minute that had a bottled on date from '08 (this just happened Saturday).

                  It's a very modern American trait to be brand conscious, or even loyal, but that type of style over substance analysis rarely leads to the best results. This is not to say that some breweries don't do a good job of making beers in multiples styles. (For example, I've never had a Stoudts' beer I didn't enjoy, but several of their beers I've only had at the brewery and all beer tastes pretty damn good when it's that fresh.) But, at bottom, very few people, or companies, do everything well.

                  So, if that means my ideal fridge is stocked with Allagash Tripel Reserve, Founder's Stoudt, Blind Pig, and Flying Dog Porter, that certainly doesn't suck (If only I could get the different shelves to be at different temperatures). I certainly maintain the same level of brand (and geographic) diversity in my wine closet (long story).

                  1. I applaud SN for producing different styles of beers, especially German styles like kellerweiss and glissade, which are underrepresented in american craft brewing compared with english and belgian styles. SN was a pioneer in the 1980s, when its pale ale was one of very few high quality american beers widely available, and sn was an inspiration to todays craft brewers. So what if kellerweiss isnt as "good" as weihenstephen. Weihenstaphen has been at it on and off for going on 1000 years. So what if snpa isnt as good as samuels smiths pale ale? American versions are always going to be different from european beers because the conditions and ingredients are different. I for one would be very happy if more american brewers would experiment with german ales and lagers as they do with ales from england and belgium. Lost in this discussion is the fact that american craft beer drinkers and brewers are almost solely responsible for the revival of european beer styles. I for one will continue to celebrate russian river for exposing americans to belgian sour beers, which are dying in belgium, as well as SN for introducing americans to weissbiers and bocks. Maybe some day americans will be brewing our own equivalent of weihenstaphen dunkleweiss, ayinger celebrator or aventinus, just as we have with saisons, porters, strong belgian pales and barleywines.

                    10 Replies
                      1. re: chuckl

                        I was very surprised to learn recently that this is the sad state of affairs in Belgium and Germany.

                        1. re: Josh

                          Josh, I'm not sure what are you referring to. What do you mean by " the sad state of affairs in Belgium and Germany" ?

                          1. re: Whisper

                            Younger people in both those countries are largely indifferent to the traditional styles produced there, and tend to drink cheap lagers. I don't remember the publication I just read this in, but Germany is losing a lot of their older breweries as this trend worsens. In America, we normally think of Europe having a better beer culture, but it seems that's a myth in terms of what is popular and where the trends are heading.

                            1. re: Josh

                              I'm not sure if this is the article you read, but it underscores the point of the decline in beer drinking in germany in particular.

                              1. re: chuckl

                                It sounds like it's also a problem in the U.K. Evidently BrewDog's initial production all went to export.

                              2. re: Josh

                                I don't follow this closely, but I know this:

                                In Germany beer sales have flagged for a considerable number of years, and many small breweries are closing. I don't know if wine and spirits have taken share from beer, but I do know that young people are drinking radlers and various other soda/beer concoctions and such. I visited the Veltins pilsner brewery several years ago and they were working on several such products.

                                I wonder if the Reinheitsgebot (and associated beer laws) worked against the brewers by limiting the range of products they might offer.

                                British brewers lose share to cheap beer/wine purchased across the Channel in France. There is that, and then there is the move to packaged beers sold in supermarkets, brought on partly by drunk driving laws (they call it 'drink driving' as I recall). And I'm sure we can find a way to blame lager for part of the problem if we put our minds to it. I suppose the move to packaged beer hurts the pub trade rather than the breweries.

                                1. re: Jim Dorsch

                                  Part of it seems to be cultural, especially in england, where people dont go to pubs as much anymore. Then theres the generational factor where young people dont want to drink their grandparents and parents beers. European beers are relatively new to most americans, but theyve been around a long time.

                                2. re: Josh

                                  Ok thanks Josh. For the most part I do believe that it is correct the majority of the younger people there tend to drink the mass produced lagers, much as they do here in America.

                                  However, I go to Germany and Belgium almost every year, often spending as much as a month at a time, and I do believe the overall beer culture is better in Europe. There are quite a few lesser known breweries from Sweden, Holland and even Italy making some very interesting and good beers, as well as a lot of lesser known Belgian breweries putting out some great stuff too. Germany to a lesser extent, as most of the good stuff is pretty well known by now and not much if at all in the way of new breweries opening there.

                                  Beer culture also includes not only the beers, but the places to drink them, and Europe is full of them. Obviously some fine places to drink in Belgium and Germany, but also Stockholm and Rome are fast joining the ranks among places with some of the world's best bars.

                                  Then there are the countless beer festivals, most of which are either free to enter or quite inexpensive unlike many of the ones here in the states. I've never been to a festival here in the US yet which could compare to some of the ones I've been to in Europe. My favorite was a small festival in Bodegraven Netherlands called the Borefts festival. It runs for two days in late September, and has a small but simply amazing list of brewers and beers. Set in and around a huge windmill along a canal, and very relaxing. Highly recommended to go if you ever get the chance. I'm going again this year and can't wait.

                                  1. re: Whisper

                                    We've taken the remainder of this thread, which was veering off-topic, and used it to start a new thread on today's beer drinkers and the future of craft beer. It's right here: