Throw a dart at a map of today’s American brewing scene, and you are likely to hit a brewer or brewery that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has touched since its debut 34 years ago. Gabriel Magliaro, founder of Half Acre Beer Co. in Chicago: “The beer laid tracks in the American palate.”
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is an “iconic style” and one of the beers they admired when starting out, according to Dick Doore and Eric Wallace, founders of Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, Colorado.
Dale Katechis, founder of Oskar Blues Brewery, says the beer “captured the American Dream by growing a homebrew recipe that went on to define the American pale ale category.”
Jeffrey Horner, brewmaster at Cisco Brewers on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts: “I grew up homebrewing (as a teenager, early-mid 1990s) in the San Francisco Bay Area. I distinctly recall my first sip of SNPA. It steered my homebrew formulations very early on. … Thank God for SNPA, it’s my ‘Coors Light,’ being nearly ubiquitous!”
That ubiquity cuts both ways. Not only has a generation of brewers drawn inspiration from Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, it has also become a go-to yardstick for brewers to measure their newer wares against (to say the least of consumers, who might use it as a kind of gateway into the kaleidoscopic American beer marketplace).
“I definitely was influenced by it 20 years ago when I started He’Brew, and I knew very little about specific flavor profiles,” says Jeremy Cowan, founder of Shmaltz Brewing Co. in the Albany, New York, suburb of Clifton Park. “I knew there was Sierra on the one hand and Anchor on the other. So, when I was looking to make the original recipe for the first He’Brew Beer, for Genesis Ale, I kind of had in the back of my mind Sierra as the iconic pale that I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to re-create the flavor.”
There were enough brewers doing that by the early 1990s, roughly a decade after Sierra Nevada Pale Ale’s debut. Why? Simple: Bitter beers were going big-time and getting bigger.
Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi, fellow homebrewing enthusiasts, started the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in 1979 in Chico, the California city where Grossman owned a homebrewing-supply shop. The pair’s inaugural commercial creation was a stout, with the first batch of pale ale coming a few days later, in November 1980. They released it the following spring—basically a homebrew recipe writ large and relying on Cascade hops for its bright, citrusy aroma.
Cascade was the first American-developed hop to be used to give commercial beer its aroma. Before its introduction in the early 1970s, through the U.S Department of Agriculture hop farm in Corvallis, Oregon, only European varieties could do the honors. Then came Cascade, initially through Coors and then through Anchor Brewing’s Liberty Ale in 1975.
Grossman, the driving force behind the recipe’s creation and still the head of Sierra Nevada (he bought out a largely absentee Camusi in 1999), was not aware of Anchor’s use of Cascade in Liberty Ale. He just knew he liked the hop-forward taste. It reminded him in part of the old Ballantine IPA, one of the first beers that really piqued his brewing curiosity.
The hoppier focus of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale helped it stand out as more brewers crowded into the marketplace in the 1980s and 1990s. “To lean a beer’s profile to highlight hops was big at the time,” Magliaro of Half Acre notes in an email. A cover story in the old San Francisco Examiner Sunday magazine in May 1986, which included the headline “The Beer That’s Making Chico Famous” and a shot of two pale-ale boxes, didn’t hurt, either.
The best-selling smaller-batch beers of that era were Pete’s Wicked Ale, a brown ale, and Samuel Adams Boston Lager, a malty lager from the Boston Beer Co. Sierra Nevada’s far-more-bitter pale ale nevertheless grew steadily in popularity through its first two decades, becoming a prototype for styles—hoppier pales, IPAs, double IPAs, etc.—that would themselves explode in popularity near the turn of the century. IPA, according to the Brewers Association, is the best-selling smaller-batch beer style in the U.S.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been made at only three locations in its 35 years: the original Chico brewery, the Chico brewery that replaced it in the late 1980s and the brewery’s North Carolina operation, which opened in 2014. It accounts for roughly half the annual output of Sierra Nevada, which is now the seventh-largest brewery by sales volume in the U.S.
Also, according to the brewery, the recipe for its pale ale has never changed. It’s still all about the hops.
These beers were reviewed by Tom Acitelli.
Oskar Blues Brewery Dale's Pale AleABV: 6.5%
Tasting Notes: Most famous as the first beer canned in-house by an American microbrewery, way back in 2002, Dale’s Pale Ale tastes like a monster version of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Brewery founder Dale Katechis says he felt the challenge “to take SNPA’s full-bodied balance between aggressive hops and hearty malt flavor to the next level.” Mission accomplished as Dale’s has twice the IBUs of Sierra Nevada (68 IBUs vs. 38), yet is eminently drinkable, just like its ancestor.
Ballast Point Sculpin IPAABV: 7%
Tasting Notes: “We have tremendous respect for Sierra Nevada, and their company was influential on our decision to build a brewery,” Ballast Point founder Jack White says in an email. “They brew some of my favorite beers, but with our particular styles, we want to distinguish ourselves so we don’t try to make beers like other brewers.” The Sculpin IPA, like Dale’s Pale Ale, uses Cascade hops, is far hoppier than Sierra Nevada, and tastes like a souped-up version of that beer (as do many IPAs and pale ales over the last quarter-century-plus).
Cisco Brewers Whale's Tail Pale AleABV: 5.5%
Tasting Notes: Cisco brewmaster Jeffrey Horner is an unabashed Sierra Nevada fan. Yet, if there is such a thing as a West Coast-East Coast divide in pale ales and IPAs, then his Whale’s Tale Pale Ale definitely, and proudly, represents the milder, English-influenced East Coast iteration. Like the others, including Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, it has Cascade hops for the aroma. Unlike the others, it tastes less bitter and goes down dangerously smooth.