During the third week of November 1980, Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi, founders of a new brewery called Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. out of a converted metal warehouse in the Northern California city of Chico, brewed the first batch of what they intended to be their second commercial release. Their first had been a stout, brewed a few days earlier. This next one was a pale ale.
It took 11 tries for the pair to get it just the way they wanted it, but, in March 1981, 35 years ago this month, Grossman and Camusi released what they called, simply, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It became one of the most influential beers in living memory, a benchmark for measuring the so-called West Coast style of bitterer brews.
Such success was far from certain. For one thing, the brewery that birthed the pale ale was a cobbled-together affair, like a lot of the smaller-batch, more traditional breweries before it and the many that would come after it. The founders, for instance, relied on a secondhand bottle filler, washer and labeler purchased for a total of $5,250 in 1980 money and picked up during a marathon road trip to Washington State.
There was also the matter of the bill. Commercial banks would not loan Grossman and Camusi any money, so they hit up relatives and others, and dug into their own pockets, an initial startup estimate of $50,000 quickly doubling. Grossman eventually sold a homebrewing-supply shop he owned on the second floor of the old La Grande Hotel in Chico to help underwrite the brewery.
Finally, there was the pale ale itself—so dissimilar to so much out there a generation ago. Watery light beers were the marketplace king domestically, and lagers far outsold ales in general. But Grossman in particular was a fan of the old Ballantine India Pale Ale and of Anchor Liberty Ale (his tour of that San Francisco brewery had helped spark the idea of starting one of his own). Both beers were bitterer than most on the market.
Grossman also liked the relatively new aroma hop, Cascade, developed in the early 1970s at a USDA research farm in Corvallis, Oregon, and first used commercially by Coors and then Anchor in its Liberty Ale. That beer had not exactly flown off the shelves—Anchor’s first bottling run for Liberty Ale was 530 cases in June 1975, a year when the introduction of Miller Lite upended the U.S. beer market. That beer was far from bitter, and was what most Americans expected in their next can, glass or bottle.
Still, Sierra Nevada kept at it, the pale ale becoming the signature release of a small, but growing brewery. Then, on May 25, 1986, the San Francisco Examiner Sunday magazine slapped Grossman and Camusi on its cover.
The young men, in t-shirts and sneakers (and Grossman sporting a heavy beard), sat atop boxes of their brands, including a clearly visible case of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The big, blocky headline read, “The Beer That’s Making Chico Famous.” In an era when many more Americans than today got their news from newspapers, the publicity served as a significant jolt.
A more gradual boost came through a much more pedestrian way: surviving. Other smaller breweries would go out of business, but Sierra Nevada stuck around (though not an increasingly uninterested Camusi—Grossman bought him out in 1998). By the end of the 1990s, the reign of the hop head was just commencing, bitterer beers clearly in the commercial ascendancy, at least within what people were calling micro-brewing.
And there was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, one of the first such beers and perhaps now, 35 years on, the foremost.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His most recent book is a history of American fine wine called American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.