Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Catching up with Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale.

Photo credit: Its own page.

The single most hellish aspect of aging are the times when you think something happened last month, and it turns out to have been five years ago. Consequently, most readers already know the point of today's digression.

First, some personal history.

At some point in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I'd pre-order as many kegs of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale as North Vernon Beverage could acquire via hook or crook, and we'd pour them at the Public House for weeks on end.

Probably a keg each year was deposited directly into my stomach. It's a wonder we ever made any money. Holiday sentimentality is utterly lacking in my interior world, and yet this annual arrival of Celebration Ale truly came to define the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

In later years, the world evolved; NABC began its own brewing operation in 2002, and in 2005 came the first Saturnalia festival, as explicitly devoted to "celebrating" winter and holiday seasonal draft beers.

In the years since, I've had my ups and downs with Sierra Nevada itself. To this very day, it still seems to me that an aspect of the company's crucial foundational California mythology was lost forever when it began brewing in North Carolina. However, this is not the point of my digression.

A couple of weeks back we were out shopping for groceries. I needed beer for sauerkraut, bean and mushroom soup, and Bridge Liquors was just around the corner, so we stopped there for a couple of bottles of Paulaner Salvator.

Remember: Never, ever use water in soup.

While browsing Bridge's packed aisles, I saw six-packs of Celebration Ale and couldn't resist the temptation. Having paid very little attention in recent years, what threw me at first glance was the changed label design, which is gorgeous, and the words "Fresh Hop IPA."

The simple fact is that while we always knew Celebration Ale was a hophead's delight, I can't recall many barroom discussions centering on whether it was or wasn't an IPA. We simply accepted it was what it was, and remains: Celebration Ale. It's the same way I feel about NABC's Elector; not this or that, but merely Elector, itself.

Concurrently ... those various annual "Harvest" releases were designed to be Sierra Nevada's showcase for "fresh" hops, weren't they?

Hence, this belated effort to rectify my grasp of semantics, and now it makes sense to me, because ...

The word "IPA" wasn't on the label in 2013, and appeared for the first time in 2014.

The Harvest series is about "wet" or unprocessed hops, while the significance of "fresh" in Celebration Ale, according to wording first deployed in 2010, is that the finishing hops (Cascade and Centennial) are selected, dried and used immediately. These distinctions are explained in detail by Heather Vandenengel at All About Beer:


Celebration Ale, which has been in production since 1981 and in its current form since 1983, is an enigma of a beer. It’s a holiday beer, so consumers might expect it to have the standard spices—nutmeg, cinnamon—but instead will find hop aromas and bitterness akin to an IPA. Since 2010, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has labeled it as a fresh hop ale, garnering confusion with wet hop ales, which are also often referred to as fresh hop ales.

Finally, at the risk of waxing curmudgeonly, I will never in my life consider Celebration Ale to be an IPA. To me, the attempted specificity mars the legend. It's a one-off, and should remain that way.

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