So I was in Whole Foods a little while ago, and on a whim I decided to make a mixed six-pack of some of the beers I’m usually too much of a snob to drink. One of the bottles I chose is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, *the* classic Pale Ale, from one of *the* classic American craft breweries. Sierra Nevada was founded in Chico, CA in 1980, and while it has grown exponentially in the 30+ intervening years, it still turns out high-quality beer that retains the “little guy” spirit of American craft brewing.
SNPA might have been the first American “microbrew” I’d ever tried – I’m 100% certain it was either that, or Anchor Steam. It was probably both. I tried a sip of my dad’s, and liked the bracing, quenching bitterness immediately – odd for me, because as a kid, and all through college – improbably – I did not like beer. Back then, Florida, hell, pretty much every state or city not named Boston or Portland, was a beer wasteland, dominated by Bud, Miller, and Coors, with their insipid, flavorless mass-market lagers. I remember being at a high school party, and turning down beer in favor of a glass of water with a wedge of lime. I just wasn’t interested; the flavor did nothing for me.
Subsequent summers in Vermont introduced me to Magic Hat – then a few years later, South Florida started getting this newfangled beer called Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, and from there I was off and running. Yet, I never forgot Sierra Nevada and Anchor. Occasionally, I still like to pop open one of the “beers that started it all.”
This is the archetypal American Pale Ale – a style known for crisp, bright citric hop bitterness riding above a bready malt. The beer should be mostly balanced between malt and hops, with a slight edge ceded to the hops, as American Pale Ales were created to showcase American hops – more bitter, fruity and pungent than European varietals. If it isn’t hopped with American hops, it’s not an American Pale Ale. In the case of SNPA, the famous Cascade hop is the star of the show, a very bitter varietal that throws off notes of grapefruit, bitter orange, and light pine.
SNPA shows a standard mostly clear gold body with a dusting of very fine sediment, as these bottles are still dosed with a thin layer of yeast for bottle-conditioning purposes. Foam retention is OK, with some thin rings of lacing clinging to the glass.
The aroma is mostly of grapefruit, honey, caramel malt, and maybe a faint whiff of skunk-weed every now and again, not at all unusual for American hops. Up front on the palate, there isn’t much perceived sweetness, just a bready, slightly caramelized malt that gives way to the crisp, bright citric hops. It’s mostly balanced, a remnant of a time when malt/hop balance was more desirable than it is today.
Highly carbonated, this beer is a little on the burpy side, which has always been one of my main complaints with it. Now matter how aggressive a pour I give it to try to off-gas some of the CO2, the bubbles in this particular beer often fill me up faster than most other beers. So even though SNPA is only 5.6%, I usually just have one.
Food pairings? This works as a great lunchtime beer with pretty much any sandwich. It wouldn’t be my first choice for BBQ, hamburgers, pizza and the like, but it still works. Where this beer shines brightest is with Tex-Mex, I think. I’d throw it against moderately spicy quesadillas, burritos, tacos. Cajun-style foods will be good pairings as well. I wouldn’t pair it with intensely spicy foods, though – for those, you need a saison, IPA, or even a Double IPA.
This one’s easily available throughout the country, often on draft even at chain restaurants.