An Almost Agressive But Completely Understandable Homage to Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
It’s that very freaking BEST time of year, and not because fat guys like wearing layers, or it’s the holiday, or even – sorry, honey – because it’s my anniversary…It’s Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale time!
The big hoppy beer in the beautiful red livery – even moreso this year in that striking can – has been around for forty years, and it still says everything it ever did. This is American craft brewing, right here, everything that American mainstream brewing wasn’t in 1981: ale yeast, coppery-bronze color, real malt body, extra punch of ABV, and a solid, well-muscled grip of hops. Hops on the nose, hops on the palate, hops chimney-crawling down your gullet.
Yeah, I’m drinking one right now. My third of the day.
That might have something to do with how I’m writing this, because I’m not going to build up to the climax, I’m just going to give it to you right here. This beer is the annual renaissance of the dominant West Coast IPA in all its glory. Clean and bright, not hazy or goopy; aromatic but also F-U bitter; and at 6.8%, powerful but crushable. You tried to kill this style, but every year it returns, and we still go apeshit for it.
There is no other beer that I will – faithfully, religiously every November – buy at least three full cases of for my home consumption. Happily, that’s a faith that’s shared by my wife, who gleefully cracks open that first fresh Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. This is our Thanksgiving beer, no messing about with a variety of light, dark, Belgian, lager. Then I will hide a sixpack or two, and dole it out in February, March, even June, and she’ll crow with delight.
Last year I knew we needed a little something extra to get us through the pandemic, so I ordered up two of the big 3-liter magnums of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, the “large format,” as it’s called. But I had to send it to my brother-in-law’s in North Carolina because of backwards Pennsylvania booze laws, and we didn’t see them until August!
It worked out well, because we had one to celebrate my niece’s wedding in September. It was a happy time at the reception when I popped the cork off the 20-foot ceiling and parceled it out to the joyful crowd. That was a classic Celebration moment, because even though the six taps offered were exceptional, everyone wanted Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale from that big bottle.
When it was done, we decorated it with pine branches, tiny lights we stole from a centerpiece, tinsel, and bundles of candy, a beery, early Christmas tree. We had pictures taken around it for our family Christmas card. It’s that special a beer. I was told there were only about 50 of them for sale this year.
Why this one? How did Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale come to occupy such a deeply entrenched position in the hearts and minds of Beer Geek America? (Er, I’m assuming it has. Maybe I’m just an old fart. I see a lot of it, and it disappears, quickly, so I’m guessing it’s still got legs!)
Well, it definitely has been around for a while. Celebration was first brewed in 1981, which makes this the 40th anniversary! This is the first year it’s been offered exclusively in draft and cans (almost; there were a few tiny runs of bottles at the breweries). I’ve heard a lot of pissing and moaning about the cans; shut up, would ya? Lighter to carry, and that solid red livery is beautiful.
The brewery tells me that “the recipe has always been the same – Celebration has been a fresh hop IPA since 1981, which is unique for a holiday beer.” The name was changed to Celebration Fresh Hop IPA a few years back to make this more emphatic. They didn’t want anyone thinking this holiday beer might be sweet or spiced.
I’ll be frank: I find that hard to believe, but if any brewery that’s still around was doing fresh hop in 1981, it’s likely to be Sierra Nevada. And yes, they do rush hops to the North Carolina brewery as well, so no matter where it’s brewed, it’s proper.
Thinking about that made me wonder what it was like at the breweries when the beer was being made. It made me think of an interview I did years ago with a guy who used to work at Ballantine. He was talking about packaging the Ballantine Burton Ale, a wood-aged IPA that the company only ever gave away at Christmas, to celebrities, the president of the US, particularly good customers, and the like. I still remember what he said about when the Burton Ale came down the line. “The lights came on, everyone lit up. It was Burton Ale time!”
I know I get excited when Celebration comes out. What must it like be where it’s actually brewed? So I asked. Turns out their excitement is a lot more…direct than the guys at Ballantine.
“It’s hard to be patient when Celebration is in the tanks. All of us are just waiting for when it gets chilled. It’s so drinkable–a magical balance of hop intensity, sweet maltiness, and that Chico yeast ester goodness” said Tom Nielsen, manager of R&D and Raw Ingredients (great job title!). Heh. I’d probably be eager to drink the stuff too!
I am, actually. I’m going to wrap this up and go pop number four. I’d advise you not to sit around on this beer: go get some. If you love it, you want it. If you don’t know it, you need to get learned up on this. There’s nothing quite like it.
Author of Whiskey Master Class, Harvard Common Press (2/18/2020 release); “To enhance your knowledge in the magical world of distilling, my friend Lew Bryson is the perfect place to start.” — Colum Egan, Bushmills master distiller
Another great whiskey book I wrote: Tasting Whiskey, Storey Publishing; “Tasting Whiskey is a book that I would have loved to have had close at hand when I first started getting into whiskey.” — David Wondrich, author of Imbibe and Punch