Beards in the hop yard
Sierra Nevada hosts a very happy hop-centric beer fest
To those who didn’t know what they were reading, the advertisements for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Single, Fresh, Wet & Wild festival must have seemed like a promotion for a bikini contest or something. But each word in the title of the Chico brewery’s first on-site beer fest describes something far more seasonally appropriate—though no less fun—than a typical spring-break event. The inaugural festival was a celebration of the fall hop harvest, and the 47 breweries that joined Sierra Nevada—alongside the sheep eating up the weeds in the brewery’s now-bare hop field—are among the most celebrated craft brewers in the country, and they were there to show off styles of beers that highlighted hops (aka Humulus lupulus) in various ways, including:
“Single”-hop beers, or those featuring only one variety of hop; “fresh”-hop beers, which utilize hops that have been dried and added to the brew within a couple weeks of harvest; “wet”-hop beers, using hops that are picked, but not dried, and added to the beer within days of harvest; and “wild”-hop beers made with uncultivated varieties of hops foraged from nature.
It was almost ridiculous how perfect of a scene it was. Picture it: A perfect sunny autumn day, and 1,500 men (many bearded) and women—most between 21 and 40—on the beautiful Sierra Nevada property. Outside the big tent: sausages and sauerkraut, gourmet tacos, soft pretzels (with beer cheese) and cupcakes; inside the tent: music from a hip indie band from Seattle, Wash. (The Cave Singers), and unlimited beer provided by the best breweries in the country.
I felt like a kid at an amusement park. I decided to take it slow and keep my strategy pretty loose as I looked over my “beer menu.” I wanted to taste my faves—Russian River Brewing Company and the home team, of course—and try some of the far-away luminaries in the craft-beer world that we don’t often get to experience out west, such as Founders Brewing Co., of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Cigar City Brewing, of Tampa, Fla. And, I also did my best to honor the theme by sampling a variety of single, fresh, wet and wild selections.
Nearly every beer of the 21 I tried was excellent; most are ones I would seek out again. Just some of the high points included Founders’ sweet and floral wet-hopped Harvest Ale (with five hop varieties); the piney, fresh-tasting fresh-hopped (with citra hops?) Raceway IPA from Pizza Port Brewing Company (Carlsbad, and other SoCal locations); the complex fruity/floral/spicy fresh- and wet-hopped Freshie IPA (with simcoe, mosaic and citra hops) from Berryessa Brewing Co. (Winters); and both the Nellie single-hopped ale (with very tropical-flavored nelson hops from New Zealand) and the brandy/raisin/chocolate goodness of the amazing, dark, barrel-aged Eclipse Imperial Stout from FiftyFifty Brewing Co. in Truckee.
The discovery of the day though was probably Solemn Oath Brewery, of Naperville, Ill. The new-to-me brewery’s friendly, bearded tap-jockeys poured two of the most unique beers I had: an amazingly balanced Belgo-American double red ale called Man vs. Internet vs. Mothra, and the odd-but-alluring Salty Beard, a Belgian IPA whose funky yeast and experimental single hop (#05256) combined into a fairly indescribable fruity muskiness that I’d never experienced.
It was also a kick to get the chance to be one of the few to enjoy a sample poured from Russian River’s one giant bottle of Toronado 25th Anniversary, a blend of six disparate styles into one sour beer that was one of the most funky, sour and complex beers I’ve ever tasted.
There were only four wild-hop varieties on the menu—IPA 395 by Mammoth Brewing Company (Mammoth Lakes), Experience IPA from SweetWater Brewing Company (Atlanta, Ga.), and a couple from Sierra Nevada—and I tasted only one, the home brewery’s Neomexicanus Wild Hop IPA, which might’ve been my favorite beer of the day. The neomexicanus sub-species is an unusual-looking multi-headed hop that grows wild throughout the Western United States, and was harvested by Sierra Nevada in the foothills of the mountain range that the brewery is named after. The flavors that the hop imparted to the special release were hard to pin down: sweet citrus, and sort of earthy, but not in a musty or vegetative way, more like freshly picked fruit—a really sunny brew! It was so new and delicious, and captured the fresh, fun and adventurous spirit of the day in one tiny glass.