Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
I ’m part of that dying breed of beer lovers whose first encounter with better beer predates the craft beer movement. I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania, when it was a land of regional lagers and the occasional cream ale, but it took joining the military and being posted to New York City to open my eyes to beer’s diversity and endless possibilities. In those dark days — roughly 1978-1980 — it was the imported wonders of Bass Ale, Guinness, Pilsner Urquell, and many others that captivated both my imagination and my taste buds.
But in 1985, I left the East Coast for good and resettled in the San Francisco Bay, California — “Frisco,” as literally no one ever calls it outside of an Otis Redding song. I initially lived in the South Bay, a.k.a. Silicon Valley, but have been gradually moving north over the past three decades. I now call Sonoma County home, and live equidistant between the Lagunitas and Russian River breweries.
When I first arrived, I quickly found that what were then called microbreweries were popping up all over the west coast. I tried every beer I could get my hands on. It was a heady time — or perhaps better, a pre-Heady time — and I was in heaven. In the spring of 1991, living a block from the Winchester Mystery House, and a now-defunct brewpub, the Winchester Brewing Co., one night’s drinking session led to a summer project that, looking back, was Brobdingnagian in its ambition, but we were young, foolish and a little bored.
The idea was inspired by the work of two English teachers in my hometown of Reading, Pa. who wrote, under the pseudonyms Suds and Dregs, a pamphlet in 1975 called “A Beer Drinker’s Guide to the Bars of Reading.” It led to their appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson after they ignored their boss telling them they weren’t allowed to fly to L.A. to be on the show. In a strange twist, that boss, who was the principal of the high school where they taught, was my future ex-father-in-law.
But after several beers, the idea to write a book seemed paradoxically sensible, and I convinced a good friend to join me on this quest. Over the course of that summer, roughly four months, we visited more than 550 bars, taking copious notes. The result was my first book, The Bars of Santa Clara County, A Beer Drinker’s Guide to Silicon Valley.
We started out having a beer at every bar, but quickly abandoned that plan, realizing it would result in our task taking years rather than months. So we made it a rule that unless the bar happened to have either something we hadn’t seen before or something we really liked, we’d spend as much time as we needed to get a sense of the place and take our notes, but that was it. We didn’t want to drink anything uninteresting, and in 1991 there were still plenty of bars, a majority really, that were only carrying mainstream lagers and the more well-known imports.
Looking back through the book now, under “Selection,” for a majority of the bars we listed “standard domestics” (which was code for Budweiser, Miller or Coors) or “import bottles” (code for Heineken or Corona, or something along those lines). If there was anything more unusual, we listed that beer specifically, by name, because that’s what we were interested in finding.
As a result, walking into a bar to find a green-labeled bottle of Pale Ale brought a certain thrill. Not only did it mean we were staying in that bar, taking a seat and ordering a beer, but soon we’d slow down and just sit with our beers and enjoy them.
Ignoring the stares of people around us, I’d bring the glass to my nose, and let the aroma of those distinctive Cascade hops waft through my senses, relishing the citrus and pine notes that were unlike most other beers at the time. The anticipation of drinking a beer I knew I loved was, and still is, powerful. Like a favorite food whose taste is both familiar and yet always a welcome pleasure, you can return to it time and time again and have the sensation be the same each time, and yet never grow tired of it. Like a cone of Belgian frites (or fries, one of my other abiding passions), that first one tastes great, but so does every subsequent stick of fried potato. You don’t stop eating them until they’re all gone. They’re just too good.
We drank a lot of beer over that summer. Some were classics that are still around, but many are now gone, with a few of those barely remembered. But fewer still have had the staying power of Sierra Nevada Pale, which set the standard for a new kind of beer, the American-style pale ale. To this day, thanks to that summer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale feels like an old friend.
And while Sierra Nevada Pale Ale can now be found in all fifty states, and seventeen countries, including almost every bar in Santa Clara County, it’s still comforting to know it’s part of the wider diversity of our modern beer landscape. But perhaps most importantly, my old friend tastes just as good as I remember. It’s a beer I can sit with, savor, and simply enjoy.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.