22 October 2009

Chico and beyond

The internationalism of beer is one of the things I love about it. Local styles are all well and good, but my respect goes to breweries who break the mould a bit, rather than produce another 3.8% ABV bitter / dry session stout / pale fizzy lager / [insert national beer stereotype here]. It was great to see Californian mega-micro Sierra Nevada looking to Germany for a revamping of their previous lacklustre wheat beer. What they've given us instead is Sierra Nevada Kellerweis, and a promise of authenticity you can take to the bank.

Open fermentation tanks and Bavarian yeast were enough to convince Al of its credentials, pronouncing it "pretty spot on". I'd agree with that, in general: it's appropriately cloudy and appropriately orange. There's a nice bit of weissbier banana, but not too much. However, I'm finding it a little lacking at the finish, with no sign of the cloves or hops dusting I'd be after. The body is a bit thin, and it's light on alcohol at just 4.8% ABV. So, yes it would pass muster as a Bavarian wheat beer, but it's just not on the money when put next to my favourite real ones. And where it really fails the quality/authenticity test is the serving size. I had a crisis trying to find a suitable glass for it. Sessionable weissbier is just not enjoyable in this sort of portion.

Funnily enough, I have the same observation I made when I tried the old Sierra Nevada Wheat last year: "Who in their right minds would go for a small bottle of American wheat beer when there's half a litre of Schneider-Weisse on the shelf next to it, probably for less money". It's come to this: quoting myself. Sorry.

The reach of Sierra Nevada goes even beyond Germany, however. Not content with harvest ales made with hops from their own estate and the next state over, they managed to lash another one out in the Spring made with fresh hops from New Zealand. Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest Fresh Hop Ale, appropriately for such a mouthful, comes in a very respectable 700+ml bottle, so no qualms about serving size here.

It pours a perfect shade of amber and gives off that lovely spiced herbal toffee aroma I associate with the best American-style IPAs. Tastewise, yes, it's very fresh and hoppy, but I got a bit of an unpleasant harsh resinous dryness at the end, around where I'd like to have been basking in peaches and similar soft succulent fruits. The bitterness also covers up what's quite a hefty malty body, delivering 6.7% ABV. Yet of caramel or toffee there's barely a trace, lacking the balance of the brewery's supposed hop extravaganza, Torpedo. Or at least that's what I thought: both Mrs Beer Nut and Thom had a much more balanced experience than me.

It sounds like I'm a bit down on the Chico guys, but I'm not. These two beers really are quality stuff, and the criticisms are purely ones of fussy personal taste. The conscientious attention to detail is to be applauded, not just because it gives a human touch to the beer, but also because of the incontrovertibly interesting drinking experiences it produces.


  1. Of course the cost differentials might be different in USA.

  2. the first US beer I truly loved, and turned me onto Craft beer - SN will always have a place in my heart. About 18 months back I went through a funny phase where I thought they had gotten a bit 'boring' and 'samey' - it took a slug of Torpedo for me to realise what a fool I'd been. There's nothing wrong with doing something simple well. I must try and grab some Kellerweiss.

  3. Re: Southern Hemsiphere's "harsh resinous dryness", yeah, last year the finish seemed to me as bitter as dandelions. Haven't tried it this year yet. I'm also offended that it's called a "Fresh Hop Ale", but it's made with dried hops.

  4. I think you're right to quote yourself -- "Who in their right minds would go for a small bottle of American wheat beer when there's half a litre of Schneider-Weisse on the shelf next to it, probably for less money" is a very good question.

    I've never had an American wheat beer that was a patch on a German one (even a boring German one like Erdinger). Some have been nice enough, but that's as far as I'll go.

    Maybe instead of trying to recreate the German style, they should think about what would make a really American wheat beer? It's not like there's no orange peel in America...

  5. Peter, Stockholm12:47 pm

    Surely the German word "weiss" is spelled with a double s (or ß if you prefer). Why on earth do they choose a German name if, apparently, they don't even bother to spell it correctly? It looks so fake and illiterate to me.

  6. Good point, Peter. Anyone know?

  7. I was able to sample the Kellerweis at a beer festival recently and was given some to take home. My personal review has yet to happen, but I am pleased to hear that it holds up (somewhat) well to what you have sampled elsewhere.