Steve Dressler spent nearly 35 years as the brewmaster of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, shepherding the California-based brewery through some of its most memorable beers.
On a bonus episode of the Brewer to Brewer podcast Dressler is interviewed by Tomme Arthur of The Lost Abbey and discusses how he was first hired, the evolution of hops, and the creation of Celebration Ale.
Skills Required for the Job
“I walked in the door on January, the ninth of 1983, desperately in need of a job,” says Dressler. “I had a couple years of full employment at a fabrication company out [by] the airport, and I had my degrees in biology and chemistry.
Sierra Nevada was looking for somebody to step in, and do some part time work on the on the case packing line. So they realized that I had the capability of picking up four bottles of beer and putting it in a box. And that was my claim to fame. Because of my science background, I started taking over a lot of the duties in the lab and fermentation and got my break into the brew house in April, because we were gonna go to six days a week of brewing.”
On the Early Days of Brewing
“It felt very much cutting edge,” Dressler says. “When we were doing a beer like Celebration Ale I remember reading an article back then was referred to as a Renaissance IPA. I always really liked that term. Very Italian. And it was a lot of fun seeing people’s reactions to it.
Working with hop industry back then was unique because there weren’t a lot of things to to choose from. The hop industry was dominated by a Germanic style. Noble hops grown in the US.
When I started brewing, the biggest acreage, hop in the country was a Tettnanger grown for Anheuser Busch. The, the big user of Cascade in the very early 80s, was Miller. They were using it in undetectable amounts in their beers, but they really liked it.
And that’s what really spurred me to start hop contracting, forward contracting in about 1985 was because when we went up for selection that year, Miller was going to walk away from Cascade, they were going to switch to something totally different. They’d like to do that at the time every three to four years and help the grower rip out all the rhizomes and keep it interesting.
And so, Cascade was basically going to go away, for all intents and purposes, because nobody else was really using it. None of the major brewers were interested,
And so we started contracting just to make sure we would have the rhizomes in the ground.
Messing with an Icon
In 2017 Sierra Nevada released line extensions to their popular Pale Ale and Torpedo beers. Dressler discusses some of the behind the scenes that went into creating Sidecar, an orange infused pale ale.
“The other beer that I would have to say, kind of drove me up the wall was when they wanted to put out orange flavoring in pale ale and call it Sidecar.
I lost it in a product development meeting. And I was almost asked to excuse myself from the room.
But I had a great conversation afterwards with our sales and marketing director because he came down to discuss it with me. And I just basically told him ‘my opinion is you’re fucking with the most iconic beer ever made in the United States.’
From his point of view, he was trying to come out with something that would, if people liked the orange Pale Ale, get them to go back and buy the original. It was an attention getter.
It didn’t last.
I told him I said, I’m gonna bust my ass making this beer for you, but I will never ever drink one. I wouldn’t even drink it in sensory.”
Tomme Arthur: How do you attribute the success of Celebration and Bigfoot to so much longevity? Is it just that their heritage? Seasonals? Or what is it?
Steve Dressler: You know, a Bigfoot has such a cult following.
Tomme Arthur: Do you believe in the Yeti?
Steve Dressler: No. Of course [I do]. So did the the guy who would send in pictures as he was having the entire Bigfoot label tattooed onto his back.
It’s the big foot, you know, it’s such a powerful beer and unique in its own right.
The thing about Celebration ale that I always found so complimentary, is that my brewing friends, that was the beer they waited for every year to come out. That’s the best compliment I think you can get.
I’m out of touch now with the sales figures and whatnot. But I don’t know how many of the younger demographic know what the hell they’re looking at, you know, it’s got a wonderfully attractive package. And they’ve rebranded it now for fresh hop IPA, because it is right after hop harvest. And so they’ve tried to do some rebranding on it, which I think is smart.
This transcript and quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity.
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