Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is an annual toast to craft beer’s roots



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Today’s craft brewing landscape is punctuated by the commodity of newness. Loud, bright labels shout from shelves. Heavily hyped beer releases encourage people to flock to breweries for cans whose contents are actually quite similar – often containing the same, trendy hops of last week’s release but in different ratios – but with a different name.

There is something extra special, then, about the annual arrival of a classic beer to remind drinkers of the origins of the current craft craze. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s Celebration Ale, a wet-hopped India Pale Ale released every fall as the brewery’s winter seasonal, is that beer.

Sierra Nevada remains one of the best selling, popular and prolific craft breweries in the United States. By volume, the company was the third-largest U.S. craft brewery in 2021. Created in 1980 in Chico, Calif., by co-founder Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada was a pioneer in the hop-forward style, and while its mainstay Pale Ale was the gateway beer for many, it is Celebration that has maintained an enduring critical and commercial appeal.

“We definitely get more calls about Celebration [than other seasonals],” said Sean Leng, who runs Fenway Beer Shop in Boston. “It’s one of the old-school beers. When we post about it on social media, we have regulars who come out and grab it. We like to hand pick beers for new customers, especially with the seasonals, and so when we [introduce them to Celebration] they want to come back and buy more.”

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Tod Mott of Kittery, Maine’s Tributary Brewing Company is a deity in the New England craft beer scene, where he has been brewing beer professionally since the late 1980s. He designed the first New England-brewed IPA for Boston’s Harpoon Brewery under the influence of Grossman’s hop-forward catalogue. Mott considers Celebration Ale a desert island beer.

“Celebration’s name and 40-year history makes for an anticipatory beer worthy of its namesake,” he said. “Clean, clear and delicious. No trendy aspirations, just straight up delicious beer that actually tastes like beer.”

Celebration Ale’s appeal could be classified as an outlier. It can feel like a beer that has passed its prime, a relic of what used to be in craft beer rather than one worthy of adoration beyond some perverse homage. At 6.8 percent alcohol by volume, Celebration relies on a classic hop profile of Centennial, Chinook and Cascade with a malt bill that creates a balanced beer with a pronounced beginning, middle and finish. It’s a departure from the current trend that emphasizes sweet, fruited-forward juiciness from start to end.

“Craft beer has always been about finding the latest, greatest newest thing,” said Joe Whitney, chief commercial officer at Sierra Nevada. “The fact that Celebration goes away for nine months a year leaves people wanting.”

That drinkers come back to Celebration Ale every year is a microcosm of Sierra Nevada’s continued success. They are not the subversive, innovative brewery of years past, but that might not be a problem.

Courtney Iseman, a beer journalist based in New York, maintains that, while Sierra Nevada is a stalwart on shelves, the brewery can have things both ways.

“[Maybe they’re] not exciting, but whatever small populations of younger, new drinkers they hope to engage, they manage to do that [with Hazy Little Thing IPA],” Iseman said. “For better or worse, they’re a mainstay, and I see them doing what works to try to capture newer consumers while also holding onto an older drinker with the comfort of nostalgia.”

Sierra Nevada remains a standard-bearer in a country that now counts nearly 10,000 craft breweries. It has long tied itself to hop-forward beers, and its Hazy Little Thing, a mass-marketed and produced hazy IPA, is the middle ground between the classic flavor profile of Sierra Nevada’s past and the haze-favored trend of the present.

In recent years, the company has followed market trends, relying heavily on a line of hard kombucha, hard tea and a nonalcoholic hop water to keep its brand relevant. But that has come at the expense of some fan favorite beers, such as Porter and Oktoberfest, which Sierra Nevada discontinued and shelved, respectively. Celebration Ale, however, isn’t going anywhere.

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The recipe for Celebration’s sustained popularity is consistency. Whitney says they’ve used the same recipe for more than 40 years, aside from the agrarian nature of the product, which can produce different tastes based on varying elements like climate or soil changes.

In that way, Celebration feels like a raised pint to a certain time in craft brewing history, one many people are eager to revisit.

“Celebration is an homage to all the classic breweries that came before Sierra Nevada,” said Mott. “Tradition has its place amongst all beer drinkers.”

A team of Sierra Nevada specialists spends a month in Washington’s Yakima Valley selecting the best hops. Once they’re chosen and dried, they are immediately sent to Chico and Mills River, Sierra Nevada’s other campus in North Carolina, for brewing. Then it’s off to the distributors in markets in all 50 states. It’s a massive undertaking.

“[Celebration Ale] is just different from the beers we make all year long,” Whitney said. “When it comes out, it’s got this spicy floral note that’s unlike everything else. It’s so fresh. As time goes, it starts to change a little bit, but it’s a beautiful beer and the fact that we can pull it off 41 years later, despite [the quantity] getting larger every year, is kind of herculean.”

Sierra Nevada sees a substantial increase in sales when Celebration Ale hits shelves at the end of the year. In 2021, sales of the beer were up 9 percent year over year.

In the beer world, the term “seasonal creep” denotes how seasonal beer offerings tend to appear on shelves earlier and earlier each year (see: pumpkin beer on sale in July). Whitney takes pride in Sierra Nevada’s patience in making sure the best hops are chosen to make the best beer possible. He notes that Celebration Ale is often the last winter seasonal to appear on shelves.

“We are always late,” Whitney said. “We’re always the last to the party. But people are always happy when we get there.”