In this post I’d like to welcome somewhat of a beer mentor of mine, Geoff Everist, a.k.a @YeastHerder. Having met on Twitter some time ago, Geoff is a font of knowledge when it comes to all aspects of beer and beer making, a veritable beer-fountain, if you will. Today, off the back of the first S4BeerClub tasting, Geoff wrote an in depth analysis of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in comparison with one of Australia’s premium pale ales, Little Creatures Pale Ale. It’s a lengthy read, but worth it for the history and depth of detail Geoff has gone into in this analysis. This is what I call SCIENTZING! Enjoy!
Fellow Brothers and Sisters in Zymurgy (Beer Scientzing),
One of the problems with reviewing Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (SNPA) is that it is THE defining American Pale Ale (APA). There is very little that can be added to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guide description of the APA style here http://www.bjcp.org/2008styles/style10.php#1a. If you are assessing to style, a fresh SNPA should be close to a 50 point (or 10 out of 10) beer.
So to hop things up a little, I will take different approach and used a local (Australian) interpretation of the style to compare and contrast the beers both in the glass and in terms of their surprisingly interleaved history.
But first some history. The common thread to both of these beers (and arguably the spark the set of the Craft Beer explosion) is the mighty Cascade Hop. First bred as “56013 hop” in around 1956 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as an alternative to German Hellertau Mittelfruh, the hop received little interest from large brewers until a wilt outbreak hit German noble hop production in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and drove prices up. The 56013 hop was named “Cascade” in honour of the Cascade Mountains in the North West of the USA and released to the public in 1972.
Part of the Cascade Ranges
Initially Coors showed some early commercial interest in the hop, however it was the first wave of the burgeoning Craft Beer movement in the early ‘80s that really cemented the popularity of the hop. The piney, citrusy, grapefruit character of Cascade became synonymous with Craft Beer, particularly in Pale Ales and IPAs. Paradoxically, these robust characteristics may have been the reason the hop was not readily adopted by the macro brewers.
The American Pale Ale story all started with two ground breaking beers from San Francisco; Liberty Ale (an IPA) from Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewing and Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Ale (arguably the first APA).
Liberty Ale, influenced by British brewing traditions and the original American Ballantine IPA was initially released in early 1975, but incorporating brewing sugar as an adjunct and hopped with Hallertau. The initial reception was not positive so it was reformulated to be all malt and to use Cascade hops for bittering, flavour and dry hopping. It was then released as the Christmas Ale later that year and every subsequent year until 1984 after which it became part of the regular line up. At a huge 40 International Bittering Units (IBU), at the time it was considered an IPA, but today would probably fit within APA parameters.
McAuliffe hand built and opened his tiny New Albion Brewery in Sonoma near San Francisco in 1976. At the time, there were only 29 brewing operations (around 90 breweries) in the US, most of them at very large scale. His flagship New Albion Ale was clearly influenced by the use of Cascade hops in Anchor Brewing’s Liberty Ale. An indication of McAuliffe’s determination to use this hop was requirement to buy in 200 pound lots. Given that his brewery was only capable of producing around 450 Barrels per year, this would have been a year’s supply and a huge risk. Based on various recent interviews with Jack McAuliffe, the recipe was quite simple, domestic 2 row malt, Cascade hops at 60, 30 and 15 minutes to approximately 30 IBU and fermented with an English ale yeast; essentially an Americanised English Pale Ale. The small scale of the brewery was its ultimate demise and McAuliffe decided to wind it up in 1982 when attempts to raise finance to scale up to the next level failed (during that times interest rates where in double digits – hard to compete against with a traditionally low return brewing operation). While the New Albion Brewery was short lived its impact was profound, both on the business of brewing and the beer produced.
One of those inspired was Chico home brew store owner Ken Grossman. A tour of the New Albion brewery showed Grossman that commercial brewing was within his reach and there was a market for flavourful beers with character. He and fellow home brewer Paul Camusi started the Sierra Nevada in 1979, building the first brewery in the spirit of Jack McAuliffe out of discarded dairy equipment and scrap metal. The first experimental batches of SNPA we brewed in late 1980 with the final version hitting the market in March 1981 (after throwing out 8 to 10 batches). While traditional bittering hops (Magnum and Perle) were used early in the boil, SNPA was a showcase for late additions of Cascade hop flowers and utilised a “hopback” to lock in the hop aromas. A hopback is a sealed vessel filled with whole flower hops which is used to filter the wort between the kettle and the heat exchanger. A relatively neutral ale yeast was chosen given a clean ferment and allowing the 37 IBU of firm hopping to shine through. This yeast is commonly referred to as “The Chico Strain” and is thought to be very similar to White Labs WLP001, Wyeast WY1056 and Fermentis US-05. The malt bill was a simple combination of domestic two row pale malt and medium crystal, providing just enough backbone to balance the hopping. The beer was bottle conditioned (carbonated through a secondary fermentation in the bottle) because Grossman couldn’t afford the machinery to force carbonate the beer. SNPA remains bottle conditioned to this day as a result of Sierra Nevada’s ongoing refinement of the process both in minimising the amount of yeast required and reducing oxygen ingress through innovative packaging.
Sierra Nevada grew steady during the 1980’s building the original 5 – 7 barrel brew length up to 10 barrels, taking production from around 400 to 12,000 barrels per year by 1987. Exponential growth allowed expansion to a new 100 barrel facility in 1989. Throughout the 1990’s even with the new facility they struggled to keep up with exploding demand, adding another 200 barrel of capacity in 1997. Today the brewery produces around 800,000 barrels per year and is distributed world wide.
Towards the end of the 1990′s, the craft beer bubble began to burst due to a proliferation of startup breweries attempting to cash in on the demand, but not paying attention to the quality of output. One of the factors in the continued growth of Sierra Nevada was an obsession with quality. This was an obsession not just with ingredients but also with process, particularly microbiological assessment and elimination of oxygen during packaging and on the shelf. Right from the start Grossman invested his precious and scarce resources in a laboratory in order to assure the quality of his production.
While San Francisco and surrounds was the epicentre of the craft beer revolution, aftershocks were felt up and down the West Coast of the USA. Two regions were of particular significance for this story; San Diego County in Southern California and the Pacific North West.
San Diego is now a craft brewing powerhouse rivalling San Francisco with megastar breweries such as Stone, Alesmith, Lost Abbey/Port Brewing, Pizza Port, Ballast Point, Green Flash, Karl Strauss and many others. One of the pioneering breweries from this region was Karl Strauss, started in 1989 by Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner. A recent MBA graduate and San Diego local, Chris was inspired to start a brewery in his home town after a visit to Perth Australia (of all places) to see the America’s Cup. He stumbled into the Sail and Anchor in Fremantle and was amazed to find the best beer he had ever tasted (to that date), and to discover it was brewed on a small system at the pub that appeared to be profitable. Named after Chris’s cousin and ex-Pabst Brewing executive, Karl Strauss Brewing Company has subsequently expanded to be the second largest brewery in the San Diego area and the 39th in the US. This was the first link between the creator of Little Creatures Pale Ale (LCPA) and the US craft beer scene, but in an unexpected direction; the West Coast of Australia had influenced the West Coast of the USA.
The Sail and Anchor was one of the properties owned by Brewtech, a company that was started in 1983 to brew “Boutique” beers. One of the founding partners of Brewtech was Phil Sexton, a former brewer at the Swan Brewery in Perth. By coincidence, the Micro Brewery at the Sail and Anchor was branded “Anchor Brewing Company”. Brewtech steadily grew throughout the ‘80s acquiring 3 more hotels and two breweries. One of these breweries was branded “Matilda Bay Brewing Company” and ultimately the company consolidated under this brand. The growth and success of the brand inevitably attracted the attention of big business, and in 1989 a 20% share was sold to Carlton and United Breweries (later known as the Fosters Group). In 1990, the Fosters Group acquired the remaining share, and for the craft brewing enthusiast the inevitable fate of rationalisation, consolidation and commodification ran its tragic but natural course.
The third locus of the US craft beer industry is the Pacific North West and in particular Oregon. In 1995, a friend of Phil Sexton’s bought the struggling Bridgeport Brewing Company in Portland Oregon and invited him over to rebuild the brewery and beer range. Sexton was surprised to find that Bridgeport wasn’t taking advantage of the amazing hop resources right on the doorstep. He scrapped most of the Anglo-style beers and started to use whole leaf Chinook and Cascade hops to create Bridgeport Brewing Company’s first IPA. The great beer writer Michael Jackson described this beer as having “a lemony grapefruity, resiny aroma; an oily palate with suggestions of vanilla pod and orange peach sorbet; and a rush of intense minty, woody cedar bitterness in the finish”.
After completing his mission at Bridgeport, Phil Sexton returned to Australia in 1997 to set up a brew pub in Perth. Using his Bridgeport experience and Oregon hop industry contacts he created the prototype for LCPA using fresh hops flown in from the US. While challenging for Australian palates at the time it proved addictive and soon had a strong following. In 2000 he partnered with former Matilda Bay colleagues Howard Cearns and Nic Trimboli to start Little Creatures Brewing. Their flagship beer was the Pale Ale that had evolved out of Phil’s US experience at his brew pub. Like SNPA, the LCPA featured whole leaf Cascade hops late in the boil and through a hop back, and was bottle conditioned. Instead of domestic US malts, LCPA used domestic Australian malt but unlike SNPA was buttered with Chinook hops and a self-propagated yeast strain was used. At the time, LCPAs aggressive American hopping (40 IBU) was unique in the Australian market therefore LCPA stood out from the crowd and developed a large following first in Perth, then throughout Australia as demand rapidly grew. In 2012 the company was bought by Lion Nathan and continues to expand with a new production facility opening in Geelong Victoria in 2013 capable of producing 100,000 Hecto Litres per year.
Whether Little Creatures endures the same fate as Matilda Bay is yet to be seen. In the end it doesn’t really matter as both Matilda Bay and Little Creatures have done for the Australian craft beer scene what Anchor, New Albion and Sierra Nevada did for the US; inspiring both brewers and drinkers. There are now many small breweries producing innovative and flavour driven beers either established or developing throughout Australia. Never before has the enthusiast in Australia had so much access to fresh, local and exciting craft beer, in no small part thanks to Phil Sexton and other pioneers. The other bonus of the flavour demand is the development of wonderful new world class hop varieties in Australia and New Zealand such as Galaxy, Ella, Vic Secret, Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Riwaka and many more.
Now that the two way link between the West Coasts of the USA and Australia is established, let’s turn to the beers.
Living in Australia, the biggest concern when reviewing foreign beers is the potential for deterioration due to factors both within and beyond the brewer’s control. The natural enemies of bottled beer are heat, light, oxygen, agitation and time. The first four factors tend to modulate the effects of the latter; the more exposure to these elements (especially heat) the faster the beer will degrade. Given this, it is easy to see the problem with both the journey to Australia from the US (typically a long sea voyage) and the treatment on arrival (often long road transport and time spent in warehouses and the shop floor in a hot climate). So when assessing a beer that has made a long journey from the brewery to you, it is imported to take these factors into account. At the very least check the “use by” date to ensure there is plenty of time remaining.
Within the brewer’s control is the level of staling compounds and contamination within the beer; minimised through good brewing and packaging practice and stringent quality assurance. Outside of their control (to an extent) is how the beer is treated ‘“in the trade”. Contamination is a particularly important factor and in many commercial operations filtering and pasteurisation is used as a last line of defence prior to packaging. However this sacrifices the flavour of beer for shelf stability and requires expensive filtering, pasteurisation and forced carbonation equipment. Assuming microbiological contamination is controlled within the brewery, bottle conditioning provides a cheap and effective method of improving shelf stability; the live yeast providing some limited protection against oxygen ingress (bottle caps are not a perfect seal) and staling. The down side of bottle conditioning is the appearance and sometime flavour impact if the beer is agitated or not poured correctly. Some bottle conditioned styles are designed to be consumed with the yeast in suspension (e.g. Hefeweizen), while others are negatively affected by the yeast flavour.
The good news is the Sierra Nevada is shipped to Australia (by Phoenix Beers, another West Coast connection) using refrigerated transport and cold stored prior to distribution. So the weakest link in the chain is the handling by the retailer.
Let’s now crack open our samples and pour them into glasses for comparison (see photo). As we pour the beers, the first thing we note is the use by date. The SNPA has 5 months to expiry and the LCPA 6. As you see from the photo, the colour is almost identical. The main difference in appearance is that the LCPA is a little cloudy compared to the crystal bright SNPA. This is probably because there was some bottling yeast in suspension as both beers were recently transported from the bottle shop.
Why would that be given they are both bottle conditioned? Time for another aside…Sierra Nevada has developed their bottle conditioning techniques over the years with the aim of leaving only a thin almost imperceptible layer of yeast in the bottle. They do this by removing the fermentation yeast from the beer and dosing back a precise amount of fresh yeast at a controlled rate (around 1 million cells per millilitre of beer).
The aroma from both beers is amazing, evident as soon as the bottles were opened, and very similar. Both poured with foamy white heads which stuck around, the SNPA a little more so than the LCPA. Both had a strong classic Cascade citrus hop aroma, to me somewhere between grapefruit and candied orange peel. The SNPA had a background but complementary caramel aroma that was not present in the LCPA. The only negative aspect was a slight sulphury yeast note in the LCPA, which is not typical of samples I have tried in the past. LCPA fresh on tap in Perth to me approaches beery perfection (it could also be that I am normally in the Qantas Club on my way home). As with the aroma, the flavours are almost identical, both having a dry smooth bitter finish. Both beers are obviously great examples of the APA style, which in their similarity reflect their intertwined history.
How would I score them? Reluctantly! 9 out of 10 for the SNPA and 8/10 for the LCPA, mainly due to the yeast issue in the aroma, however I am sure both beers are capable of a perfect score in the right conditions.
So, next time you open a delicious crafted hop bomb, raise your glass and give thanks to the pioneers like Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman and Phil Sexton who made it all possible.
Geoff Everist, a.k.a @YeastHerder
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Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada, http://www.sierranevada.com/beer/year-round/pale-ale
Liberty Ale, Anchor Brewing, http://www.anchorbrewing.com/beer/liberty_ale
Little Creatures Pale Ale, Little Creatures, https://littlecreatures.com.au/beers
Anchor Brewing Company, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchor_Brewing_Company
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sierra_Nevada_Brewing_Company
Little Creatures Brewery, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Creatures_Brewery
Matilda Bay Brewing Company, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matilda_Bay_Brewing_Company
New Albion Brewing Company, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Albion_Brewing_Company
Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Strauss_Brewing_Company
Pale Ale, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_ale
Beer in San Diego County, California, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_in_San_Diego_County,_California
Yeast Strain Comparison Chart, Kristan England, http://www.mrmalty.com/yeast.htm
Categories: Guest Post, The Yeast Herder | Tags: beer, Beer Club, cascade, Hops, Imperial IPA, Little Creatures, malt, Pale ale, Scientzing 4 Beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, The Yeast Herder | Permalink.