A guest post by Avenue Pub manager Zack Shelton.
If you stop at the Pride gas station on the corner of King Street and Damon Road in Northampton, Massachusetts, you will find a wide selection of unsurprising beer: Michelob Ultra, Budweiser, and its lighter sibling Coors, Shock Top, Blue Moon, Samuel Adams’ Boston Lager. To mix it up, there is a smattering of local options available, some of which are brewed right up the street.
As I browsed the selection of brews to bring over a friend’s house, it struck me that I wasn’t particularly intrigued by anything available in the cooler, save for a very familiar package on the bottom shelf. The freshly green logo and the lettering were reminiscent of something old-school, but not traditional. The cans in the package shone bright green and had a softness to their sheen. That was enough for me. I settled on a 12 pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
On a different occasion, in my new home of New Orleans, I left work around 10pm on a Friday with the thought of picking up some beer to bring back home and watch Stranger Things with my fiance. I stopped into the closest beer store and spent about fifteen minutes looking at the the store’s extensive selection. There were lots of great local things that I’ve recently become familiar with, along with some national and international brands. After waffling between a $12 four-pack of 12-ounce bottles and a few six-packs that ranged from $13-$18, I made the decision to pick up that familiar 12-pack of sleek green cans.
One of my fondest memories of Sierra Nevada: I was on the Big Island in Hawaii, celebrating my aunt and uncle’s 10th wedding anniversary/renewal of vows. We were with a group of beer people, including a renowned brewer from Michigan. Immediately upon looking at the beer list, which boasted many local, national, and international options, said brewer opted for a Sierra Nevada. I followed suit, knowing that his choice was probably my best bet.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is not only a safe bet, it’s a smart one. It pleases many, outside of the Untappd-addicted beer drinker who seems not to enjoy the flavor of beer so much as collecting badges on the application. Likewise, the craft beer neophyte would accuse me of purchasing something too mainstream, too redundant, too banal. There are plenty of pseudo fresh and overpriced cans of local options that I haven’t even tried and might not have the chance to try for a very long time. However, it’s never been in my or my family’s nature to try to please everyone. I’ve always promoted what I think to be good and shied away from overpriced, overhyped beer. Is my palate the be all, end all? (The correct answer is yes, but that’s a different article that no one will want to read.)
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is iconic, but to some it has become pedestrian. Consumers have seemingly unlimited and ever-changing choices, and in this endless search for ‘hot and new’ we overlook the tried and true. Sierra Pale is always still there, and it means so much more to this community of beer people than many can possibly understand. But that’s not why I buy it: I buy it because it is close to perfect, every time.
I recall a night of debauchery with my close friend and mentor, Greg Engert, the beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group in Washington, DC. We were showing our mutual Kiwi friend and brewer, Ben Middlemiss, our favorite spots in the capital city, when we stumbled into the iconic Tune Inn on Capitol Hill. We settled into our booth with our significant others in tow and proceeded to order copious amounts of Sierra Pale as the night wore on. (There may also have been shots of whiskey involved.)
We sat there enjoying each other’s company as well as the perfect balance of malt, hops, and yeast that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale consistently provides. In the middle of conversation, Greg stopped and exclaimed, “There’s nothing like this beer. It tastes like fresh English bitter with a touch of American hop and that classic Chico yeast. I feel another round is in order.” It was.
Another time, while in the suburbs of San Francisco, a friend and I were shooting pool. We started with some locally brewed hoppy beer which was quite good, but rather expensive. Both of us just having graduated college, we were looking for the best bang for our very few bucks, and the bar at the pool hall was selling pitchers of Pale for $10, so it was the natural choice.
We sipped and shot a few games (I believe I got smoked) and then stopped to watch the others and drink some more. My long time friend said, “This beer was always around the house when I was growing up. My parents drank it almost nightly. I think they still do.” At that point, in my early days of drinking, I didn’t understand the significance of that statement. Months later, while visiting home again, I joined him and his folks during the holidays, and the fridge had one option – you can guess.
The point of bringing these anecdotes up is that there are countless stories surrounding Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, more than I can even imagine. I envy those who were alive (or of drinking age) when this beer hit the market. The craze that we now see surrounding beer did not exist (according to those who were there). No running to tents at festivals, no trading of beer online, no paying a small fortune for a bottle or a can. I truly envy that time when beer was just beer. Sierra Pale tastes like beer to me, which is something that I crave after hours at a beer festival or a long shift, after wearing down the enamel on my teeth with countless tart ales, or coating my palate with the next hot and sticky pastry stout. There is something to be said for malt, hops, water, and yeast, and in my opinion, Sierra Pale says it all.
I fully understand the risk of sounding like the old curmudgeon who reminisces about better times, but I think to the contrary, we are in the best time for beer. In fact, it’s too good of a time. There is so much great beer in the world these days and there is no way I will ever be able to try them all. That’s part of the reason why I so often stick to what I know to be great – who has the time or effort to constantly be seeking out something new that might not be at least satisfying?
I would take Sierra Pale over lots of beer on the market today for several reasons – the price point, the flavor, the shelf-life, and lastly, knowing to whom my money is going. Innovators are always going to innovate, but there is nothing wrong with refusing to try to fix what is not broken.
If we look at what Sierra is doing on a regional level throughout the states, brewing beers specifically made for local markets, that to me is innovation. But they are also not giving up on their most emblematic beer, the Pale. Why? Because it stands for something great. Not only does the Pale Ale stand for itself as a great beer, it represents a legion of brewers and beers who are truly unsung heroes for this industry, some of whom are gone and forgotten, some of whom are still here and are somewhat forgotten. The flavor of Pale represents the original artisans who rejected that beer had to be boring.
Without Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, we would be missing a vital stepping stone in this craft beer movement/revolution. Still, if Sierra were to discontinue Pale, the market would most certainly never see the likes of it again, in my opinion.
Why am I so vehement about this? Well, I’m just an angry young man with a drinking problem, but I think that the mindset and taste of most consumers who consider themselves craft beer drinkers is broken and it needs to be fixed. I think Sierra Pale is the antidote. It’s balanced, it’s drinkable, it has hop character, it has malt character, it’s refreshing, it’s complex, it pairs swimmingly with foods of all sorts, and the brewery has sustainable practices that no one seems to know about. It’s damn fine beer, and goddamnit, it deserves some respect!
I recently became a manager at a venerated bar called The Avenue Pub in New Orleans, Louisiana. For years, the Pub had served Pale Ale everyday, but suddenly, as the market turned towards the hyper local (often hazy) hoppy beer, the sales just weren’t there to continue having it on draft all the time. Through no fault of the Pub, the Pale just wasn’t “sexy” enough to have on constantly. Now, a few years into the hyper-haze-craze movement (don’t get me wrong, I drink hazy beer almost daily as well), we are giving it another shot for all of the reasons I mentioned above.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is worthy to be on draft in any well-respected beer bar in the US because there is nothing else like it and nothing else that means as much. We can sell a pint of Pale for $5 and deliver a unique drinking experience and who knows – your neighbor at the bar might overhear your order and tell you a story.
Because that’s what craft beer is all about.
**During the month of April, the Avenue Pub will donate $1 per pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale sold to support neighborhood beautification and storm water management through Nola Connects, a local non-profit platform.**
Zack Shelton is a spoiled brat who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has earned nothing. He spends most of his time with his cats, who do not love him, while reading “How to Survive Being Lucky” self-help books. He resides in New Orleans and lives mostly on credit cards he stole from his family.