California. I’ve only been once, but I can tell you it’s big, it’s beautiful, and it knows it’s important. Hell, California is damn near bankrupt and it is still the eighth largest economy in the world. God bless them. Oh, and this week’s weather calls for plenty of sun and temperatures in the mid-sixties. Now here I am, sitting in a cold living room in Boston, heat cranked up, really trying to put myself in a California state of mind. Not an easy task. Luckily, I have a delicious beer that hails from the left coast (is that another one of those annoying nicknames only tourists use?) for me to review today
On hand I have the Northern Hemisphere Harvest 2011 Ale from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. The sixth installment of my fledgling beer review has taken me from Portland, Maine, home of fresh lobster to Chico, California, in California’s Central Valley, one of the most abundant sources of produce in America. Clearly, there is much more ground to cover in between, but I’ll leave that for future columns. For now, let’s get down to business.
By now the founding story of Sierra Nevada may sound familiar to other brewing companies, but be aware that for every garage entrepreneur that succeeds long enough to have some kid write a column about their work thirty years later, many fail, so don’t take their story for granted. Two guys who had been brewing beer in their kitchen founded the company in 1979 and Sierra Nevada has since grown to be the sixth-largest brewing company in the United States. Where the company really stands out is in its commitment to sustainable operation and agriculture. In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency awarded Sierra Nevada its Green Business of the Year award.
While the energy efficient modifications at their brewing plant and 7,000 solar panels covering most of their roof are fantastic initiatives, they didn’t just stop at infrastructure. The brewery also has a small farm on site, from which it sources organically grown hops and barley malt for its Estate Ale. The Estate Ale is released in limited quantities in 22-ounce bottles capped with green wax and can be a bit hard to find. In fact, if I could have found it, I would be writing about it here.
Instead, I’ll have to “settle” for another one of the brewery’s special releases: the 2011 Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale. The concept for the beer is pretty simple. Hops are picked fresh from their growing location in Washington state and shipped to the brewery within 24 hours to be used in the brewing process. The ale is then released in the fall of each year, denoted with the proper vintage. The beer’s label denotes it as a “fresh hop ale,” so it’s useful to talk about hops briefly to understand why fresh hops makes a difference.
Hops aren’t always the most important ingredient of beer, but arguably they are the most noticeable. Hops look a bit like pinecones and grow on climbing bines (yes, "bines") up to twenty feet tall, supported by wires. Germany produces the most by weight, followed by the United States, and China. Widely used varieties include Hallertau, Saaz, Goldings, Cascade, and Simcoe, each with their own unique qualities. When hops are added during the boiling portion of brewing, they yield bitterness and flavor; when added after the brew has cooled, so called "dry-hopping," they mostly yield their distinctive aroma. No matter when you add them, the active ingredient in the hops is the oils contained within them, which are at their highest concentration and vibrancy when they’re fresh picked.
Overall, it is a very interesting concept beer. Sierra Nevada also does a Southern Hemisphere offering with fresh hops flown in from New Zealand, fresh from picking. I’ll be the first to admit, I am not a hop enthusiast. I appreciate them in moderation for the nice bitter notes and citrus aromas they can provide in a moderately hopped India Pale Ale, but I think the compulsion some brewers have to just load in more and more hops yields an unpalatably bitter brew. Luckily, this is not the case with this particular beer. I’m expecting some tasty hop presence in today’s selection.
Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale is available in 22-ounce bottles and is a true steal at five bucks, considering it is a special edition release. Out of the bottle, it pours a cloudy copper color, with a great foam head, which helps release the aromas. I’m always impressed when a beer has a hefty head of foam, even when I try to pour gently; it’s usually a mark of freshness. The first thing you will notice as you lean in for a smell is fresh pine, the first sign of the hops. The image of a pine forest in the Pacific Northwest springs to mind. On first sip, the bitterness hits you up front, with a nice level of carbonation, and a bit of a tropical fruit taste on the tongue. The hops are noticeable in that the beer is a bit oily. The slick coating it leaves on the surface of the mouth creates a lasting bitterness, which is my least favorite part of a highly hopped beer.
I’m inclined to take another sip, but mostly to rid myself of the bitterness. I admit this is my personal taste coming through, so your mileage may vary. However, do not get me wrong, this is a very good beer and it is definitely more restrained that some of your more extreme IPA offerings. Being able to offer enough bitterness to make the beer interesting, without making it as bitter as a Warhead candy (remember those?) shows mastery of the balancing act needed in making great beer. If you’re a big fan of Stone Brewing Company’s IPA or Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA, your grade would be higher than mine, but I still think it deserves a good mark. Grade: B+
Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest 2011
Style: American IPA
Enjoy: Enjoy right from the fridge, but like all beers, flavor will change as it warms.
The Sixth Glass, Boulevard Brewing Company (Kansas City, MO). Newly distributed in Massachusetts, from Missouri’s Boulevard Brewing. A delicious take on a Belgian Quad style ale. Dark fruits, plums, bready malt, a true winter beer. ABV: 10.5% Grade: A
Session Lager, Full Sail Brewing Company (Hood River, OR). A session beer envisions itself as allowing you to drink a few in one sitting. I will oblige them. This lager is crisp with fresh grass scents and a pleasant honey sweetness. It comes in stubby little 11-ounce bottles and is a fantastic beer. ABV 5.1% Grade: A-