Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Celebration Ale

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Chico, CA

Style: India Pale Ale (IPA)
ABV: 6.8%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

As I’ve alluded to in the past, I am not one to jump on bandwagons. I don’t do anything simply because “everybody else is doing it”. Granted, I’m not saying I’ve never been guilty of bandwagon-jumping; we all do things on occasion that are a bit atypical (hell, Nigel once complimented a French person). But anyone familiar with my rambling reviews can likely attest to the fact that I don’t like large-scale, over-hyped things, particularly when it comes to beer.

As beer dorks, we all scoff at the latest multi-billion dollar “beer” created by the Big Three, but I go beyond that. For example, living in Wisconsin, you will rarely, if ever, see me drink New Glarus Spotted Cow, Capital Island Wheat or Amber, or Sprecher Wisconsin Amber. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these brews (in fact, these breweries are easily among the best in the state), but they are so widespread that I’ve come to avoid them. Similarly, I used to drink a fair amount of Goose Island when I first forayed into the world of craft beer, but I now avoid them altogether, not only because you can find them on every corner, but also due to their unholy alliance with A-B. Same goes for Leinenkugel’s. Nationally, I typically avoid Red Hook, Samuel Adam’s, and other heavily distributed offerings. Again, it’s not because the beer isn’t good (although they’re typically not up to the standards of many craft brews), but because if everyone else is doing it, I don’t want to do it. That’s how Nigel rolls.

There are some exceptions to this rule when it comes to craft beer, however. Rogue Ales, particularly Dead Guy Ale, are found all over the place but I still enjoy them on occasion. Dogfish Head is distributed nationally, but their beer is far too good to pass up based on my unique anti-establishment viewpoints (its true … Nigel is a dangerous revolutionary). I used to avoid Flying Dog, but their Cannis Major line of “extreme” beers was far too good to pass up. I’ve even been known to sip a New Belgium brew or two on my annual forays to the Southwest. While I call it my “anti-mainstream rule,” it’s still a bit flexible.

There is one nationally-known, mainstream brewery threatening the very existence of this tried-and-true Nigel rule. Chico, California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing is found all over the country, including in most retailers with only modest craft beer selections, but it doesn’t prevent them from being one of my favorites. Perhaps this has something to do with their penchant for hops (Sir Nigel is the King of Hopheads, after all), but I think it has more to do with the fact that they’ve somehow managed to market quality craft beer to the masses. For once, the hype machine got something right.

Sierra Nevada’s ascension seems unlikely given their remote location. Chico is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (duh) of northern California, about an hour north of Sacramento (which is pretty much the end of civilization until you get to Portland or Seattle), not necessarily a place you’d expect to find a world-class craft brewery. Hell, it isn’t a place you’d expect to find anything at all, except for the Sasquatch. Nonetheless, Sierra Nevada has used the plethora of favorable natural resources available to them (pure mountain water, proximity to the hops hotbeds of Oregon and Washington, and the availability of California’s agricultural riches) to expand nationwide. This is likely helped by the fact that the Pacific Northwest is the cradle of American craft beer.

Whatever the exact reasons are behind Sierra Nevada’s national appeal, I for one am delighted they’ve been so successful. Despite being one of the most recognized craft beers distributed nationwide, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is a fantastic APA. Bigfoot Barelywine Style Ale is the best example of the style in my opinion, and Harvest Ale, a fresh hop APA, is phenomenal. Sierra Nevada even succeeds when it isn’t blowing us away with hops, as both their Stout and Porter are great offerings. I’m looking forward to finally cracking open my sixer of Anniversary Ale, an IPA that’s been sitting in Nigel’s back stock waiting to be reviewed for a couple of months now. Hops or not, Sierra Nevada continues to impress me.

Celebration Ale is just another example of this. I actually avoided it the first few years I saw it, as Sierra Nevada doesn’t really tell you what type of brew it is. As I’ve elaborated recently, holiday beers come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, so Celebration could have been anything. It comes in a festive package with a cabin in the mountains covered with fresh snow and smoke pluming out of the chimney, with a poinsettia wreath surrounding it. The bottle lists the ABV (6.8 percent) and gives a brief description saying that it’s a beer brewed to celebrate the onset of winter, which is a tradition as old as brewing itself. Sooo … how are we supposed to know this is an IPA? Probably the same way I found out, which is to just buy the damn thing and discover it on your own. One sip and it was clear, this is an IPA in all its glory.

Celebration Ale pours with a thick, pillowy head that requires some patience. The majority of the impressive head dissipates quickly, though it does leave a significant amount of creamy trace that sticks to the side of the glass throughout the drink. A deep golden brown color, it has a fair amount of sedimentation that dances throughout the drink. It’s certainly a lively brew in the glass. The aroma is surprisingly tempered given the loads of aromatic Cascade hops that come through in the flavor. It’s a milder version of the hoppy aroma characteristic of a Cascade IPA: light citrus tones of grapefruit, orange zest, and a piney, evergreen zip that is perfect for the season. Sweeter, malty notes of caramel and molasses are also detectable at the back-end of a heavy inhale.

The relatively timid aroma gives no indication that a rush of flavors is about to inundate your taste buds. Despite the fact that this is loaded with Cascade and Centennial hops, the first flavor to hit you is sweet malt. A sugary zip of caramel and molasses coats the tongue, perhaps easing the zip of the hops. The hops come in full force shortly after the first sip, providing a nice, crisp bite to go with the initial sweetness. Typical Cascade and Centennial hop flavors are present, but this is not a hop monster. It has an earthiness not normally present in an American IPA, which is a nice change of pace. Celebration Ale is remarkably well-balanced for an IPA. It seems to take the typically maltier recipe of an English IPA and adds American hops to it. Few IPAs, particularly ones checking in at nearly 7 percent ABV, can be considered session brews, but Celebration Ale certainly could be. You could drink these all night, and likely feel much jollier after the sixth than you did after the first. The aftertaste is mild by IPA standards, and it’s a remarkably well balanced beer regardless of style; it’s sure to be a celebration for hopheads and non-hopheads alike.

There you have it: another fine, widespread national release from Sierra Nevada. While Celebration Ale won’t be the absolute best American IPA you’ll ever have, it’s certainly in the top tier. What better way to celebrate the season than with a kiss of hops underneath the mistletoe?


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on December 21, 2007.
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