Hidden inside a manila folder, somewhere beneath the dusty substrata of the office file cabinets that contain the contents of my pre-digital working life, there is a photograph of me beaming proudly alongside a case of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale bottles, circa 1993. It was the first legal case of Sierra Nevada that my pub ever purchased, and it had just been unloaded from the delivery truck.
Before that noteworthy day, there’d been more than a few communally financed bootlegging trips to Chicago, but of course those beers weren’t for sale to the general public. Rather, they were hoarded for true believers, and saved for weekend retreats to our friend’s cabin on the shores of Patoka Lake, to be spent washing down a mess of freshly caught and fried bluegill, or accompanying a steaming pot of chili during Sunday NFL games.
It’s strange to think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is now taken for granted by so many beer aficionados. It shouldn’t be. Twenty-eight years after it was brewed for the first time in the Northern California town of Chico, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has earned the right to be termed a bona fide classic. It is a dependable, genre-defining yardstick, and even more significantly, it still tastes as good now as it did then, in spite of the brewery’s meteoric growth. There is no better accompaniment to Mexican and Southwestern cuisine — the spicier the better.
A long time ago in England, “pale” ale was so named primarily because it had a lighter color than the darker brown and black beers that were the norm. Over time, the style acquired a following all its own, perhaps most famously as Bass, brewed using the mineral-laden waters of Burton-on-Trent.
The American brewing industry that was decimated by the idiocy of Prohibition reflected the brewing preferences of German and Central European immigrants and their lager beers. Although there were exceptions like Ballantine’s, the ale-making heritage of our English, Scots and Irish forbearers had long since been supplanted by the worldwide preference for lager’s narrower flavor spectrum.
But as artisanal American brewing flickered back to life in the 1970s and ’80s, small-scale, haphazard and in some cases guerilla methods of production favored those almost forgotten ale styles, sending the pendulum swinging back to the British Isles pedigree of traditional porters, stouts and bitter ales of varying strength.
There were crucial differences. Microbrewing’s founding fathers (and mothers) were waging a veritable revolution of genuine flavor against the stultifying conformity of bland, bastardized industrial lagers, and as a result, a high degree of conceptual contrarianism was present at the inception. Moreover, because microbrewing reversed the trend of American migratory history, beginning in the West and moving east, readily available raw materials were used — like the Cascade hop.
The American-grown finishing hop known as Cascade first appeared in 1972 as the result of a Department of Agriculture breeding program. Fuggles, a 19th-century immigrant from England’s hop fields, was crossed with Serebrianker, a little-known variety from Russia, of all places. From these humble origins emerged American microbrewing’s signature hop, with distinctively floral, piney and citrusy characteristics.
The Cascade hop defines Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It’s the “American” flavor that Europe’s and the world’s new generation of microbrewers often emulates. When the German-born-and-bred head brewer at Schneider, maker of traditional wheat ales, was asked to revive an old recipe with a twist, he dusted off an “Oktoberfest Wheat” and added Cascade hops as homage to the American-style India Pale Ales that had been such a tasty part of his recent trip to the States. The result, Schneider Wiesen-Edel Weisse, is a German wheat ale first, but with a little bit of left coast just for kicks.
American-style Pale Ale, whether Sierra’s version or one of many brewed by local and regional micros, should no longer be considered a beer style suitable only for high end, highbrow and “special” establishments. It’s as much a default beer selection as Miller, Coors or Bud, and to be blunt, there’s no excuse for bottles of it to be unavailable at even the most neighborhood-oriented of bars and diners.
Ask for it. If they want to keep you, they’ll get it.
Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.