Trailblazing US beer reinvented the brewing business

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The Sierra Nevada Pale Ale wasn’t the first craft beer to come out of America, but it’s certainly been one of the most popular and influential.

Since its humble beginnings in 1980, the year after Ken Grossman founded the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California, the delicious, full-bodied, citrusy gem has made its way around the world, and has been a staple in Australian bottle shops long before the craft beer revolution took off in this country.

Indeed, the trailblazing brew may have helped change the industry itself, with many brewers and enthusiasts around the world crediting the Pale Ale as being their introduction to craft beer.

Steve Grossman, brother of Ken, travels the world in his role as the ambassador and spokesman for the US’s first billion-dollar independent brewery and says he meets devotees of the beer he describes as a “game changer” whenever he goes.

“I just got back from Japan two weeks ago, and I did several events over there,” he says via Zoom from a huge craft brewing convention in Nashville, ahead of his visit to Australia for the annual Great Australian Beer Spectapular (GABS).

“I had four different individuals come up to me and say, ‘Sierra Nevada Pale Ale changed my life’. I don’t know if I would go that far – although it certainly changed my life – but it’s certainly something that consumers and a lot of brewers come up to us and say ‘this is what got us into craft’. So, I think it did change the industry actually.”

Steve Grossman from American craft brewery Sierra Nevada.Steve Grossman from American craft brewery Sierra Nevada.

He says that what was radical for a US industry used to bland domestic lagers when the Pale Ale was released, is now comparatively mild and conservative compared to some of the beers now on the market, both in terms of alcohol content and International Bitterness Units (IBUs).

“When we introduced our Pale Ale, which was our flagship then and still is, we had a beer that was 38 IBUs and 5.6% ABV.

“That was a strong, very hoppy beer for the beer consumer at that point. Now fast-forward 43 years and our Pale Ale is on the milder, lighter side compared to some IPAs. So, the consumer’s taste as certainly changed and developed and become much more sophisticated, and they are certainly much more aware of what craft beer is and what craft beer has to offer.”

As is customary for the more than 180 breweries taking part in this year’s GABS, which kicks off in Melbourne next week before heading to Sydney and Brisbane, Sierra Nevada is bringing a special one-off brew for consumers to try.

Reflecting a love of Australian hops, which Sierra Nevada has been using in its Southern Hemisphere Harvest IPA for years, the brewery has come up with the No Place Like Aus.

“The idea was to brew a beer that features the Australian hops, and primarily Vic Secret and Galaxy, so we designed a West Coast style beer around those hops, which were really great. We brewed a beer that’s 6.5% alcohol, 60 IBUs – a modern style in that it uses pale malt and also used some Maris Otter in there for a little complexity, and we also used some Golden Promise, another British malt.”

The Sierra Nevada team is a big fan of Australian hops.The Sierra Nevada team is a big fan of Australian hops.

Grossman has visited GABS twice before and he says he was impressed by vast array of styles on offer and the “very enthusiastic beer drinkers and aficionados”. This time he’s keen to see what has changed in a rapidly evolving industry as well as catching up with old friends – and making new ones.

“That’s what I think beer is about,” he says. “It’s a very collegial atmosphere where everyone gets seems to get along. That’s what I was thinking about at this conference with 11,000 brewers. We’re here to learn more about the industry to learn current trends, what’s happening in the industry and everyone gets together and shares ideas. And I look forward to doing that as well once I get to Sydney.”

It’s often said that Australian craft brewing is about a decade behind the US, although it’s grown exponentially here in the last 10 years, and Grossman thinks that’s about right. With around 9500 breweries in the US now, he thinks the country is close to reaching an equilibrium between new companies opening and others going out of business.

Like Australia, the US craft beer industry is wrestling with an overall decline in beer consumption, so the key to success, Grossman says, is carving out a bigger slice of for the craft beer end of the market.

Sierra Nevada founder Frank Grossman (centre) with his team in the early days of the trailblazing brewery.Sierra Nevada founder Frank Grossman (centre) with his team in the early days of the trailblazing brewery.

“Craft is still doing relatively well holding their own in terms of market share,” he says. “The bigger breweries are having a fairly large decline and imports are trending up. So it’s the imports are doing well. Craft is holding its own. We need to carve out a bigger portion of it and the big brewers are starting to see some big declines in their space.”

And for the future of craft beer amid the dominance of pale ales and IPAs and the proliferation of more and more adventurous and sometimes even outlandish styles, Grossman would like to see the return of a classic style, with a fresh spin.

“I’m hoping that craft pilsner is a style that comes around,” he says. “I love pilsners, it really showcases the brewer’s ability because you can’t hide behind anything. I’ve had some great pilsners around the States so I’m hoping the craft consumer is going to gravitate to that style as well. I love IPAs, but a crisp pilsner that is hoppy, and clean and very quaffable, is style that I would like to see become more prominent.”

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Originally published as How the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale helped kick off the craft beer movement around the world

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