20 April 2018

Hi Sierra!

There was a veritable cascade of new Sierra Nevada beers in mid-March. It took me a while to pick my way through.

From the 4-Way IPA pack, we begin with No Middle Ground, claiming to be a fruity-hopped IPA with added cold-brewed coffee. It doesn't look great: a sickly, murky, orange-ochre. The aroma gives a sweaty stale coffee effect plus harsher more acidic hop bittering. Could the flavour save it? A little. The coffee turns fresher and the hops calm down, but neither really excels. That it was a November release suddenly makes sense as it's quite warming, plenty strong at 6.9% ABV, showing a thick toffee malt base, and then with the added creamy, oily coffee. That finishes quickly, however, and there's only a very mild twang of citrus after it. This isn't the crazy brew I expected it to be, but it's not terribly interesting either. I've tasted much more enjoyable coffee IPAs, and they usually throw balance to the wind and pump everything up more powerfully than Sierra Nevada has. Consider it a beginner's version of the style.

The other is Know Good IPA, one which claims no gimmicks or special features, just perfect straightforward US IPA flavours. It's 6.2% ABV, clear pale gold and has a gentle stonefruit aroma, showing apricot and plum. There's a quick bitter kick in the foretaste, chalk and grapefruit, but it fades quickly leaving a candy sweetness behind. Like the previous beer it lacks distinguishing features. Yes, it's balanced, and pleasant, and even moreish, but where is the Sierra Nevada razzle-dazzle, the one that made their Pale Ale so talked-about? I'd definitely swap it for a Torpedo.

Hop Bullet double IPA isn't part of the set, and though there's no packaged-on or best-before date, it's marked as a spring seasonal so I'm guessing it's fresher than the previous two. It pours an innocent clear pale orange and smells sweet and sugary. The flavour continues that theme, but adds a gentle spritz of orange zest too, finishing on a drier lemon bitterness. It's still quite light and plain, which is not what one expects from a Sierra Nevada DIPA, especially one with such an openly aggressive name, and 8% ABV too. It's a bit of a damp squib. Looking for answers on the label, it turns out the science part is the use of lupulin dust. Call me old fashioned but I think I prefer my US IPAs brewed with hops.

We're a long way from the finish and there has been no wow factor as yet, which is frankly astonishing. We move next into a quartet of beers using experimental hops. They don't have names yet, and we're not even given their code numbers. I can't help feeling I'm paying money to do the brewery's and grower's product development for them.

First out is Experimental Hop Pilsner, pale yellow at 5.5% ABV. I'm not at all sure that pilsner, of all styles, lends itself to experimentation. I'm happy with Saaz, thanks. This one smells properly grassy, with a touch of bread or cake, like a classic Czech version. The carbonation is low and the flavour offers that fresh-mown grass accompanied by a lemon-rind sharpness. There's plenty of light lager malt to buoy that up, and it does taste like a proper pils. But there's that lack of oomph again. It's not particularly hop-forward and doesn't offer much of a twist on the basics.

Experimental Hop Session IPA brings the ABV down a notch to 4.6%. It looks similar to the pils: just as pale with a little more haze. The aroma is mild but what's there is worryingly plasticky. The flavour, however, is massive coconut, almost exactly like Sorachi Ace but without the token orange pith. At least this one is easy to describe, and to be honest I'm glad to have something to hang on to. It is a little watery, though, and I'd never have described it as a session IPA without prompting: this hop, like Sorachi, will just make everything taste like itself and nothing else. At least we know that they're not using the same hops all the way through. Time to ramp up the strength.

The IPA was the best of last year's Fresh Hop set, so I was similarly optimistic this time round for Experimental Hop IPA. The aroma is an odd mix of the floral and citrus, like grapefruit handsoap. My optimism wilted a little. The flavour is bolder, but its first offering is a harshly savoury Mosaic-gone-wrong whack of caraway seeds. Behind it is a very strong sweet and oily blend of chocolate and orange oils: experimental in the hallucinogenic sense. There's even a slight curl of sweet and savoury smoke. The thick texture rescues it from too much weirdness, and there's a chompable chewy character, getting full value from its 6.7% ABV. The comedown is a far more normal punchy grapefruit finish. This was definitely the most interesting of the set so far. Would they double down for the double?

Experimental Hop Double IPA is an even 8% ABV and a pale copper colour. I wonder are the hops the same as in the session IPA because there's that coconut again, though sharp and spicy rather than rich and oily. It's properly heavy without turning hot, cementing the hop kick in a solid malt base. That said, I expected more complexity in a beer with this sort of poke. It's all rather one dimensional, bringing us back to the decent-but-unexciting earlier beers in the series.

Obviously nobody wants an experimental beer that tastes terrible. This lot, however, could have done with being a little more out-there.

The special bonus round is Braupakt, not actually a Sierra Nevada beer at all but brewed at their Bavarian collaborators' place in Weihenstephan. Broadly, it's a weissbier, though a big lad at 6% ABV. It's a murky and boorish creature, topped with a thick and awkward pillar of foam, though one which fades quickly. The aroma is a little harsh, blending banana with the strongly artificial citrus of toilet duck. Its flavour is a little cleaner, offering more crusty bread than fruity esters. The hops are mixing it in there, but as a thumping California bitterness rather than any depth of hop flavour. There are echoes of Schneider and Brooklyn's magnificent Hopfen Weisse, but only echoes: it falls a long way short. As a beer, overall, it's only OK, showing the features of its dual aspect but never managing to blend them into a greater whole.

Not much impact in this lot. I can't imagine any of these beers will be cited as life-changing the way Sierra Nevada Pale Ale frequently is. But there was one final shot at redemption, landing just a couple of weeks ago. Hazy Little Thing is Sierra's take on New England IPA, which in and of itself is fascinating. The style gets brickbats for being brewed in a slipshod fashion. How would it fare at the hands of a large brewer as experienced and fastidious as this?

It's certainly not as murky as a typical NEIPA, cloudy and translucent rather than soupy opaque. There's plenty of juice in the aroma: sweet cantaloupe and mango, with an underlying grassy spice. The texture is remarkably light for 6.7% ABV, with none of the milkshake gumminess I associate with the style, and don't miss in the slightest. The spicy bitterness is to the fore of the flavour, as well as a zesty citrus. There's not so much room for the juice here, the finish offering little more than a sharp metallic tang. It's still very tasty, and very easy to drink: I polished my can off in short order and was ready for another straight afterwards. This won't replace the murkbomb du jour in any haze-chaser's affection, but it's a damn fine beer and that's all that matters.


  1. Professor Pie-Tin1:44 pm

    Came across White Gypsy's latest experimental beer last night.
    And it was bloody gorgeous.
    Very drinkable.

  2. CD_Eps9:05 pm

    Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is possibly the most important beer of the 20th century (apart from everybody's first beer at the end of prohibition) I believe it is, anyway. This beer set the stage for everything we know today and even though it was not the first its' popularity led the way

    1. From an American point of view, anyway.