A taste of Chico
Sierra Nevada’s Estate Ale gives a whole new meaning to locally made
Winemakers have cornered the market on that rare commodity called terroir, the sense of place in a vintage that reflects the particular region and the season in which the grapes were grown. By contrast, beer is rarely so regional or seasonal; ingredients are harvested in a wide geographical range of times and places, and after harvest both grain and hops are dried and may be stored for months or years before shipping. Indeed, to imagine that one can taste the soil of a North Dakota barley field or the balmy summer air of a Willamette hopyard in an average brew would be a far-fetched notion.
But this fall Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. produced an entirely estate-grown ale brilliant with the aromas and flavors of Chico—and nothing but. The 6.7 percent alcohol-by-volume Estate Brewers Harvest Ale—basically an IPA—was made with organic Metcalfe barley grown on a 26-acre plot a mile from the brewery and from four varieties of hops organically grown on the premises.
There may, in fact, be no other beer in the world derived so entirely from one small nook of the earth. Sierra Nevada owner and founder Ken Grossman believes that Chico terroir is evident in the beer’s bright grassy hops flavors and rich, whiskey-colored body.
“We sense that we get some earthiness and flavor in this beer from the local soil that doesn’t occur in other places,” said Grossman. “Wine grapes are known to pick up flavors depending on where and how they’re grown, and our hope is that our holistic approach to farming is reflected in our hops and barley.”
Lakefront Brewery in Wisconsin also brews a locally grown beer. Local Acre Lager made its debut this fall and was brewed with ingredients grown about 100 miles from the brewery. The barley is of a cultivar called Lacey, and brewery owner Russ Klisch says its taste varies from field to field. In many regions, he says, Lacey barley can taste bland, but from Montello, Wis., where the season’s 20-ton crop was harvested, the Lacey carries a “biscuity” flavor. This is terroir in action.
Many breweries today grow a few hop vines on the premises for use in specialty beers, but finding enough grain to brew with outside of the North American Great Plains is a bigger challenge for beer-makers. Still, some have found local products. Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., for one, has released an all-Oregon beer using Klamath Valley barley, Willamette Valley hops, a house yeast culture, local river water, and even glass bottles molded in Oregon. Deschutes Brewery has managed to source Oregon barley as well as hops for much of its production volume.
Meanwhile, at least one eccentric brewery has strived in the opposite direction of the go-local movement. Dogfish Head in Delaware makes its Pangaea ale using ingredients from all seven continents, including Asian basmati rice, Peruvian quinoa, North American maize, and water from the Antarctic ice shelf, acquired through the cooperation of the American researchers who work and live there a portion of the year.
And as for terroir, can it be tasted in such a geographically muddled beer? Sure, says Dogfish Head’s media liaison Claus Hagelman; the beer tastes more than anyplace else like Australia, where the beer-potent crystallized ginger was sourced.
Among Dogfish Head’s staff and crew there is only pride in sourcing ingredients from so far apart, even in a time when so many others are going “local.” Hagelman observes that whereas the global spice trade once fulfilled our palates, today the craft-brewing industry does the same.
But for Sierra Nevada’s estate beer, the soil of Chico is all the spice that Grossman and brewmaster Steve Dresler wanted in the brew. The beer, says Grossman, likely will remain an annual limited release as the brewery’s capacity to grow barley probably will never meet its annual needs.
Dresler put 50 tons of barley—the entire estate’s crop—into the 2009 Estate Brewers Harvest Ale. But annually he goes through 15,000 tons, an amount that would require more than 8,000 acres of Butte County real estate to produce. Clearly, the Midwest grain industry is too vast to be uprooted and replanted for the benefit of a miniscule brewing trend.
But even this remarkable beer comes with a giant asterisk: All its crop components were grown in local fields, but Sierra Nevada has no malting house, the facility where microbial processing turns barley starch into fermentable sugar. So where did Sierra Nevada send its 2009 barley crop for malting?
The beer still tastes like the sun and soil of Chico, and Grossman believes that the 2009 Estate Brewers Harvest Ale will serve well for bettering the public understanding of the agricultural industries that underlie the beer business.
“It’s for show-and-tell,” he said.