Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

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Sierra Nevada Goes One for Two

March 16, 2017

By Will Gordon, March 16, 2017

1980 was an uncommonly fruitful year for the leisure and entertainment fields, as it brought forth such epochal wonders as Pac-Man, CNN, Kurtis Blow’s self-titled debut album, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. But while each of these was revolutionary at the time, only one of them has aged particularly well.

Pac-Man’s reign at the top of the video game heap lasted a mere year before it was eclipsed by Ms. Pac-Man, which improved upon the original with such features as extra warp tunnels, semi-randomized ghost movement, and a bow. Since inventing the concept of round-the-clock television news, CNN has morphed into a tepid sideshow of the cable TV circus best known for employing Don Lemon and tracking mythical airplanes. And although Kurtis Blow holds up better than most of its contemporaries, it’s not even the man’s best album, that being 1984’s Ego Trip.

Thank goodness for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, then, which redeems 1980’s claim to tasteful innovation by remaining one of the best and most popular American beers of the modern era. Many of SNPA’s historical peers, such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Anchor Steam, have lost clout over the past decade, although that’s due as much to evolved consumer sentiment regarding their styles as to the individual beers’ shortcomings; Sam Adams hasn’t been usurped by superior Vienna lagers, and Anchor Steam hasn’t been left behind by other California commons. People just don’t drink as much of that stuff anymore.

But if Sierra Nevada’s category, American pale ale, bestows an advantage in the marketplace, it’s also more challenging to remain at the head of such a star-studded field. Sure, any heavily hopped, aggressively marketed pale ale can make a brewer’s boat payments, but only an all-time great can sustain a brewery’s reputation for nearly four decades. In an era dominated by deservedly revered newer hop strains – your Citras, Mosaics, Galaxys, Simcoes, and so forth – the pale ale that taught America how to appreciate bitter, spicy beer still rides humble Cascade to the 97th percentile of pale ales on RateBeer.

And the ever-fickle beer public still rewards SNPA’s excellence at the cash register. It’s either the 19th or 20th best-selling beer brewed in America, depending on how you do your brewcounting, which doesn’t sound that impressive until you remember that macro exists: There are two flavors of Busch in the top seven, and three Bud Lights in the top 15.

Regardless of which lens you put on your calculator, it’s clear that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is still riding high after all these years. So no time like the present to cram some fuckin’ orange peel in there, right?!

Sidecar is the worst Sierra Nevada product I’ve encountered.”

Okay, so there is my admission of bias. I was not too excited last fall when Sierra Nevada announced two new “brand extensions” to prop up sales of their flagship Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA. I’m not opposed to new tricks from old hop-dogs – I prefer Founders Azacca to their Centennial IPA, Harpoon Hoppy Adventure to the original IPA, Firestone Walker Fortem to Union Jack or anything else under the sun – but I admit to a cranky first impression when I heard about Sierra Nevada Sidecar Pale Ale.

It seemed somewhat demeaning. What next, a blackberry IPA from Anchor? A mango’d Sam Adams?

But those misgivings aside, I remain an unabashed Sierra Nevada fanman, and I was more than willing to give Sidecar a fair hearing. I mean, I had to buy six to write about the one, so I gain nothing by rooting against the best interests of my beer fridge, right?

It looks promising, pouring a nice, deep golden-copper color that resembles the original, with a good inch or so of off-white foam. The aroma, however, gave me pause. It smells like dried-out orange pith and bready malt, with little hop character to speak of. The aroma is more beery than fruity, which was a welcome surprise, but the overall effect wasn’t entirely dissimilar to what you’d expect from a teaspoon of freezer-burned Tropicana concentrate dropped into a Miller High Life.

The flavor is a bit better, as the Cascade dutifully provides an earthy pine edge that helps round out the slightly bitter orange peel notes, but the Equinox and Mandarina fail to provide the bright fruitiness I’d hoped for in exchange for the classic Pale Ale bite. The orange becomes a bit more pronounced with time in the glass, especially on the nose, but there’s probably not enough of it for the radler crowd, yet far too much (and not enough of anything else) for devout SNPA fans, or even casual hop-appreciators. Sidecar is the worst Sierra Nevada product I’ve encountered.

But! There’s also the new Sierra Nevada Tropical Torpedo to consider, and that updated classic is an outright delight.

The dank, resinous Torpedo Extra IPA wise folk have known and loved for more than a decade resembles the new version in little more than name (derived from a proprietary hop-dosing device used in the brewing process), as Tropical employs Mosaic, Citra, El Dorado, Comet, and Amarillo to deliver a huge burst of mango, pineapple, and papaya flavors atop a firm base of telltale Sierra Nevada pine and pepper.

Tropical Torpedo ultimately tastes more austere than the name, label, and aroma would suggest, but it’s certainly fruitier and less earthy than original Torpedo, and it is excellent.

So two new Sierra Nevada recipes produce one stunner and one regrettable misfire. This is well below their career batting average of, oh, .900, but I suspect the retail landscape is going to make it very easy to embrace Tropical Torpedo while Sidecar fades away. And if not, well, Mr. Blow warned us about such tribulations way back.



ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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