BILLY ON BEER: New year, new beer

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by William Hickey

I made a number of resolutions this year, two of which I will share with you today.

My first resolution was to keep moving forward. In that spirit, I vowed that I would surround myself with forward-thinking individuals, organizations and ideas. Ironically, this line of thinking brought me back to individuals, organizations and ideas from years past. The most notable of those was a beer that I, due to narrow vision, wrote off ages ago.

Before I go further, I owe the fine folks at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company an apology. My relationship with this brew house started, as I'm sure many did, with a sampling of a single ware. Needless to say, my eyes were opened after a trip to the renowned Tap Room located in Mills River, N.C. I realized how far I've come since that first Pale Ale and more important, how far they've come.

Now that last statement may have led you to believe that there is something wrong with the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (SNPA). There most certainly is not. During my formative beer drinking years (AKA college) in Boston, the Pale Ale was my old reliable. At that time, SNPA accounted for approximately 60 percent of all of the breweries' sales. And with just reason! The SNPA was crisp, hoppy and best of all, accessible. Every bar on Boylston Street carried it and the SNPA proved a fine foil to the, shall we call them, "beers-for-those-on-budget." Many of you are nodding your heads and the rest may have had a difficult time hearing me from the top of your pedestals. 

So, in many ways, Sierra Nevada became my staple for "beer" as a whole. All others were measured according to its bite, finish and color. By rights, I should have thanked the brew builders at SN. 

But did I? In my impudence, I dubbed the flavor "beer," and thus, labeled all other SN crafts as "more of the same." My Untappd feed will provide all the evidence that you will need. In what I can only describe as a moment of weakness, I coined the cringe worthy phrase "Sierra-Nevada-Ey" (again, see my Untappd feed for the proof of my crimes against beer). 

One might say that I missed the forest for the trees. I will now say that I missed the forest for the forest.  Yes, SNPA was a top seller, but at that time, the artisans at SN turned out over 50 different labels ranging from year-round varieties to seasonal releases. In 2014, SN established its second brewery in Mills River, N.C. As I write this article, there are more 1,000 registered Sierra Nevada Beers on the Untappd app alone. The fact was that there was a world of beer – and I was missing it.

But thanks to a little innovation, and my philanthropic brother-in-law, I made the trek to the Mills River Taproom in hopes of expanding my horizons. There, I was treated to seasonal ales, limited releases and even a few high-altitude favorites. Among the most notable were the limited-edition Bigfoot Barley wine (aged in red wine casks), and the smooth yet spicy Maltiple Personalities Rye Beer. Ingenuity was alive and well at SN and I had some catching up to do.

So how did this happen? Did Sierra Nevada get caught up in the craft beer revolution? Was there a chance, however slight, that beer drinkers like me labeled SN as a one trick pony? Moreover, did Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman spend the last 15 years thinking about that wayward college student and what it would take to bring him back to the fold?

During a 2014 interview with Forbes, Grossman said that he adopted a "grow or die mentality." It was clear that innovation and brand expansion were the pillars on which Grossman would rest the growth of his beloved beer. All the while, Grossman remained committed to running an environmentally conscious business. This vision came to bear fruit in the form of Sustainable Business and Energy awards every year since 2011.  

And as for the beer, well, the variety and ingenuity speak for themselves. 

Bottom line – Sierra Nevada moved forward. As I sipped a flight of truly ingenious ales, I couldn't help but find inspiration in the bottom of each glass. If the beer can change, so can I in the months and years ahead. It was a fitting resolution for 2018.

My second resolution? Issue fewer public apologies. Well, the year is still young. Cheers to you, Sierra Nevada, and Happy New Beer.


Hickey is a California resident, but is married to the former Lynly Ehrlich, a Chester native.