Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Estate Brewers Harvest Ale

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Chico, CA

Style: India Pale Ale (IPA)
ABV: 6.7%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (World class.)

Let’s talk gimmicks …

This isn’t the first- and likely won’t be the last- time Nigel has broached the subject. I’ve admitted many times that I’m a total shill for clever advertising, and I don’t plan on changing anytime soon.

The thing with gimmicks is that, unfortunately, they often fall under the category of “you get what you pay for.” The best example is the “as seen on TV” crap that always seems to sell for the low, low price of $19.95. My feeling was always that the stuff couldn’t possibly be as cool as it seemed on TV, and that theory has recently been proven. One of the malls in Milwaukee has a store dedicated exclusively to “as seen on TV” crap, a larger assortment that you typically find at discount retailers Walgreen’s, CVS, etc. Those knives that skin a tomato in seconds? I’m sure they do the first two times you use them, until the cheap aluminum blade becomes dull and chipped. Sham-WOW!?! Sure … even Bounty paper towels can do that at first, but there’s a reason they get thrown in the trash after the initial use. Slap Chop? Great … it’s a piece of brittle plastic with some aluminum in it for people too lazy to chop their veggies the right way.

Some gimmicks are downright despicable. The Snuggie, for example. Take the cheapest fleece throw imaginable, attach it twice to make arm holes, and boom! You’re selling hideously ugly, shit fabric to retards for 15 bucks a pop. Oxy Clean? I can think of at least 30 combinations of standard household cleaning supplies that would do the same thing. Sure, Billy Mays was flamboyant, but with a drug habit that would make Hunter S. Thompson blush, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’s one adage that all of us should subscribe to in this day and age: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Then there’s craft beer. As a new, somewhat upstart industry, craft brewers across the country use gimmicks to get the often reluctant public to try their creations. Be it clever names, brews with certain ingredients and/or alcohol amped to the extreme, or artistic designs/packages, craft brewers are the kings of marketing, often out of necessity. The thing that separates craft beer from other “gimmicky” products, be it cutlery, outerwear, household accessories, etc., is that more often than not, the gimmick works. Granted, that isn’t always the case (can anyone say Pizza Beer?), but it seems to generally be the norm. Some of America’s best known and received brewers, from Dogfish Head to Stone to New Glarus, hit the experimental button on a regular basis to create brews that many would consider gimmicky, but more often than not hit the jackpot.

Which is why I’m down for another “gimmicky” brew, Sierra Nevada’s 2009 Estate Brewers Harvest Ale. The idea is interesting, but begs the question “is it necessary?” The idea is simple, but unique: one of America’s biggest and best craft breweries, based in the fertile valleys of Chico, California, created an ale (IPA, to be exact) brewed exclusively with ingredients grown on their estate. This is a homebrewers dream come true: you grow it, you brew it, you distribute it to the masses, and you charge 11 bucks a bottle for it. While the marketing team at Sierra Nevada is sure to go on and on about how it captures the subtle nuances of the fertile soils and pure environment that is Chico, let’s face it … any brewery in Northern California, Oregon, or Washington (the beer commodity hotbeds of America), could do the same thing if they had enough acreage.

Sierra Nevada refers to this as one of the only estate-made ales of its kind in the world, and that’s likely the truth. But that claim is deceiving. Beer uses so many unique ingredients and, if you plan on distributing it, uses them on such a large scale, that the concept is impractical. Nonetheless, my initial waft of Estate leads me to believe I may have something special, which wouldn’t surprise me given the style and the brewer.

Estate opens with a nice fizz and an initial waft of fresh hops. The pour reveals a creamy white head about a finger deep that slowly dissipates, leaving a pillowy lace on top throughout and massive residue on the sides of my chalice. A striking deep amber/mahogany hue with slight sedimentation and good carbonation, Estate looks like a winner from the get-go, but looks aren’t everything, unless you’re Carrie Underwood.

The aroma is fantastic. While it’s clearly hoppy, this isn’t the beginning-to-end plethora of floral, bitter Northwest hops that often characterizes a fresh West Coast IPA. On the contrary, there’s a wonderful grainy malt backbone (surely that Chico-grown barley) and huge amounts of sweet aromas. Sure, some of it is the light, citrusy, floral aromas of hops (in the interest of full disclosure, I can’t detect exactly what type of hops they’re growing in Chico), but there’s plenty of sugary notes (caramel and molasses), and even some hints of mint. That’s right … I smell some mint, and I’m not chewing gum, I promise. All in all it’s a remarkably complex, pleasant aroma that may or may not have anything to do with geography, but has everything to do with quality beer.

The flavor blew me away, and it isn’t because of the concept, or the “gimmick,” if you will, but rather the fact that it’s a damn fine IPA. Initial flavors demonstrate the proper use of fresh hops, as the oils in the hops not only give it a stronger aroma, but give it a stronger floral, slightly bitter flavor at the outset. The hoppy bite quickly turns to fruit, in the typical zesty citrus flavors of grapefruit, orange, and so on. A slight piney undertone tops of the hop side of the flavor, but that hoppiness subsides as the session progresses, and the malt begins to take over. It’s mostly a light, sugary, toasted barley malt, with occasionally strong hints of caramel and light brown sugar but also a subtle grainy earthiness that is quite pleasant. While none of those characteristics is overly unique to the style, the way they bond is. It’s an amazingly complex array of flavors that allows each and every ingredient its moment in the sun, and, in turn, allows Chico to shine. Medium bodied and smooth on the palate, Estate has a slightly bitter finish that leaves a mild aftertaste, but all in all is an easy drink that will leave you satisfied and craving for more.

This isn’t a five-mugger because I think it’s cool that everything was grown on premise (okay, the hops and barley were … not sure if they harvested the microbes from the drainage ditch by the pasture or used water from the puddles in the parking lot). While I do like the concept, the reality simply is this is a five-mugger because it’s a phenomenal IPA that should be enjoyed by all. The unfortunate side of Estate is that because of its concept, it’s extremely pricey and therefore likely won’t be enjoyed by as many people as it should. But as a beer in general, it’s wonderfully complex, extremely flavorful, surprisingly balanced, and, well … just damn good. Gimmick or not, give it a shot, as you won’t be disappointed.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on November 17, 2009.
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