EXCLUSIVE: Lew Bryson Interviews Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
I recently got a rare opportunity to interview Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale; the beer, itself. I met the beer in the taproom at the Chico library; there are a lot of taprooms in this town. We got some fresh pints of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – “Hey, little bro!” Celebration greeted the glass – and got to work.
Lew Bryson: First off: I can’t begin to tell you what an honor this is. Big fan, long-time fan, and my wife – hey, Cathy – is sitting over there just crazy over being in the same space with you. Maybe you could do an autograph for her after?
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale: Ha, yeah, I get that a lot; more than you’d think for an anthropomorphized idea of a beverage. Sure, no problem, glad to. Hey, could we get a six-pack of me and a Sharpie over here, please? Yeah, here you go…to Cathy, right? Cheers, enjoy me.
LB: Oh, that’s awesome, thank you. So… Can I call you Cele? I hear that’s what the cool kids in California call you.
SNCA: No, man, don’t do that. No offense, but that’s for brewery people only. You understand. You gotta earn that.
LB: No problem, I hear you. I’m gonna call you Celebration then, because, you know, respect. And you’re they/them, right?
SNCA: No, I don’t do second-person pronouns. At all. You can call me “the beer” if you want to. That’s what I am; a beer. People talk to me, they think we’re friends, they write me letters. Look, I get that you like me, and you’ve known me for years, but seriously; I’m just a beer.
LB: I understand, but I disagree on one point; you’re not just a beer. You’re an OG American craft beer, one of the first of the greats in the pantheon, and one that’s stayed the strongest. But that brings up a question: in over 40 years, you’ve never gone mainstream, never stepped up to year-round. Is that a mystique flex, or do you not want to to be taken for granted? Or is it about the fresh hop thing, you can only be seasonal?
SNCA: You know, 40 years ago, there weren’t enough great hops to go around, fresh or not. But beers like me, and Bell’s Two Hearted, and my buddy Russian River Blind Pig, we went big on the hops, huge on them, and hops has boomed, baby, taken off. Hell, even the Germans are going wild with the hops; it’s not just the ‘noble’ stuff anymore, it’s like a revolution, all ‘alpha to the people’ over there. Australia, New Zealand, France, China, Argentina…and every time you guys breed new hops, that makes new beers, like all my Torpedo cousins. It’s true, dude, new hops mean new beers, and new beers mean more new hops, and if you go backwards on that, 40 years back, to where it started? You’re looking at this beer, right here.
Wait, what was the question? Oh, right, why am I not year-round! Yeah, it’s the fresh hops. If it’s not fresh hops, it’s not me. And that’s okay, because you can’t Celebrate year-round. That’s like those places that say ‘sushi, 50% off, every day!’ That’s not a sale, that’s just sushi. If I’m out there every day, I’m not a Celebration!
LB: Good point, but…have you ever wondered what it would be like going year-round? Melting out the old cabin, seeing if folks loved you as much in summer?
SNCA: Oh, well, yeah. I’ve thought about it. Every time a bar rolls out a keg of me for one of those Christmas in July things, and people bust it in about an hour, I think, ‘Oh hell yeah, I could do this, I’m cold, I’m fresh!’ But then I remember: Celebration. That’s my name, that’s what I am. Get me while I’m here…and then I’m gone. Celebrate!
LB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but back in the day, your label was deliberately plain, right? No “fresh hop”, not even “IPA.” Now you’re all identified and such. What happened? Paradigm shift?
SNCA: I am gonna have to correct you there, Lew. The label always said “fresh hop ale,” and I’ve always been fresh hopped. Ken and the gang decided to go with “fresh hop IPA” in 2014, and the label changed. But me? Nah. Still the same Celebration, going strong on the Cascade, Chinook, and Centennial fresh flowers, never dried, boom, bines to kettle.
LB: Thanks. About the fresh hop thing; I’ve always wondered, are fresh hops easier to absorb? Are they…I don’t know, painful?
SNCA: No, fresh hops are easy like Sunday morning. Every beer wants to be brewed with fresh hops. It’s hard to describe, they’re kind of…softer, but like soft music, not soft pillows. Does that make sense?
LB: Sure, I get it, they don’t yell at you. Have you ever been brewed any other way?
SNCA: Not brewed, exactly, but…there’s a special version of me that’s only available at our taprooms during Me Season. It’s collected from the drips of beer out of the big dry hopping bags; supercharged with that hop goodness, you know? Very small amounts, and crazy rich. We call it Cele Drippins’. And a few times…that got barrel-aged. Crazy shit, right? Put that on your bucket list!
LB: You’re brewed in California and North Carolina. What’s that like? Two branches of the family? Twin sibs? Multiple personalities?
SNCA: All me. Celebration is where Celebration is, and it is wherever I am. It’s not all Zen, though. It’s beer. Remember? I keep telling people, it’s just beer.
LB: Do you prefer being on draft, or cans, or bottles?
SNCA: I don’t care, really. Whatever’s best for me staying hoppy and fresh, you know? Cold me, clean glass, let’s go.
LB: Not strictly on topic, but the fans want to know: what’s Bigfoot really like?
SNCA: Oh, well, Bigfoot. She’s a trickster. You know, we’re not in the brewery at the same time. Ever. But I hear stories; that Hazy Little Thing’s some kind of serious gossip. Whole bales of hops disappear, maybe some malt they thought was in storage winds up in the mash somehow and the brewers just have to roll with it. She always wants more, that one, got a rep to maintain.
LB: Wait – she? You’re a beer, but Bigfoot is female?
SNCA: Hells yes she is! No doubt. A beer that big, when they know what they are, that’s how it is. Believe me.
LB: Then I gotta ask: do you two get along? There have been tales of some serious head-butting.
SNCA: Really? No, we’re cool, for sure. Those Christmas in July things? Yeah, we get up to some shit! Heh, and the spiced beers always get blamed.
LB: How do you feel about lagers? Like your stablemates, Oktober and Summer Fest?
SNCA: Don’t get me started. Lagers, they all think they’re so technical, they’re all ‘Hey, brau? Mein OG is off by a tenth uff a degree Plato, ja? Fix this!’ Look, they’re good and all, we all sit down at the same table and have a pretzel, but damn! Relax! You’re not all that. Jeez, lagers…
LB: When you were young, you were the hot ticket, a blazing new star in the firmament. Now you’re an old reliable – whoa, shit! Sit down, sit down! How about we say you’re a familiar friend, is that better?
SNCA: Yeah, that’s better. Sorry I flipped. Words can hurt, you know? Words matter.
LB: I get it. But don’t go all DDH on me like that. So as a “familiar friend,” do you find that people are still excited to see you?
SNCA: Honestly, getting on the trucks, that first draft pull…it’s like stepping on stage in a packed stadium concert. Yeah, people are still excited. They’re like your wife, buddy; they gotta get all they can of me. I’m grateful, too, believe me. Not humble, it’s not my nature. But I am grateful as hell.
LB: Thank you, this has been great. Do you have anything you’d like to say to your thousands – I’m sorry, yes, your millions of fans?
SNCA: Good to be back, good to see you. Let’s Celebrate!
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