The annual arrival of Sierra Nevada’s Celebration IPA is the beer equivalent of hearing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” for the first time in a new year. The familiar red packaging with the snow-covered log cabin illustration means the holidays will soon arrive and be filled with the vibrant snap of fresh hop flavor.
Sierra Nevada’s Celebration has been a brewery staple since the early 1980s and has long been the benchmark (and an island) for largely distributed fresh hopped IPA. Much has been written, said, and praised about Celebration, as it represents both a taste of the hop fields and American brewing ingenuity. Widely available, it’s easily spotted on store shelves and on social media, where fans snap pictures of the clear red-hued ale topped with that thick cap of foam. Oh, that foam.
However, for the last several years a rare version of the 6.8% ABV Celebration has been available–on draft only–at Sierra Nevada’s Mills River, North Carolina location.
It’s called Celly Drippins.
Everyone Loves Leftovers
To understand Celly Drippins it helps to understand the brewing process for Celebration IPA.
Each year Sierra Nevada collects thousands of pounds of fresh Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook hops from farms in the Pacific Northwest. They are transported to the breweries in Chico, California and Mills River, North Carolina and added to the Celebration IPA recipe.
“We do a very traditional dry hopping with whole cone hops,” says Sierra Nevada’s Innovation Brewmaster Scott Jennings. The hops are packed into nylon bags and attached to a cable. The brewery then removes the top and bottom of 800-barrel fermenters and connects the cable at both ends straight down the middle, before reattaching the ends. The tank is then purged with CO2 and the beer is transferred in and rests on the hops for about a week and a half, absorbing the flavor.
“It’s an incredible thing to see,” says Jennings.
The beer is then transferred from the tank to filtration and eventually packaging. The pillow case sized bags of hops are left behind.
“Overnight the tank is empty and these hop bags are just hanging in the space, and they are filled with beer soaked hops, and the beer just drops to the bottom,” says Jennings.
Several years ago the brewing team noticed that when they disassembled the tank–usually the following day–to remove the hop bags, a small amount of beer had gathered at the bottom.
Soon they began transferring these “drippings” to a smaller tank and put it through the regular Celebration process, albeit on a smaller scale. Originally these “Celly Drippins” were only served at the annual brewer’s holiday party.
A few years back Celly Drippins was tapped in the brewery’s tasting room for the first time, giving the general public a chance to drink the more assertive, danker version of this beloved holiday classic.
Because of the nature of the equipment and the brewery setup, Celly Drippins can only be made in the North Carolina Brewery, says Jennings.
“After it was famous out here, they attempted it, but the breweries [are different], the way the cellars are, the engineering is different. It’s just not feasible,” he says.
The brewery never publicly announces when Celly Drippins will go on tap, but internally the brewing staff knows and they assemble “like a flash mob” in the tap room when it goes on, usually getting the first 50 or 60 pints.
Jennings says that annually the brewery collects and kegs about six barrels of the Celebration leftovers. It’s so limited that the 2023 batch is likely to have been kicked by the time you’re reading this article.
“It’s something special that we recover, it’s like the angel’s share in the world of distilling, we only get what we get,” he said. “We’re never going to make more than we get.”
With Celly Drippin’s on offer to the general public, is there a new beer that has replaced it for brewers and employees only? Jennings deftly reflected the question when asked.