Life

A Craft Brewing Legend Talks About Making America’s Most Iconic Holiday Beer

If you’re drinking an IPA craft beer right now, you have Ken Grossman to thank. Grossman and Paul Camusi founded Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. back in 1979 in Chico, California. From a small 3,000 sq. ft. warehouse, they fired the first shots that began the modern craft beer revolution. And one of the most resounding volleys in that early era was a beer so outside of the box that people didn’t really get it at the time: Celebration IPA.

Celebration IPA was first sent out into the world in 1981, just in time for the holiday season. The dry-hopped IPA was such an aberration that Grossman and Camusi had to spend a fair amount promising beer drinkers that, yes, malty ales were allowed to be hoppy too. Fast-forward 40 years and the idea of convincing a beer drinker to drink a hoppy IPA — in any season or form — almost sounds like a joke, thanks to the over-abundance of the style in multiple forms. It wasn’t always that way, though, and Grossman still remembers the effort it took to turn the tide.

With the holidays approaching, we were lucky enough to catch up with Grossman over the phone to talk about his iconic holiday IPA, the history of Sierra Nevada, sourcing hops, and finding a true balance between the hoppiest and maltiness of ales. It’s an illuminating conversation about one of America’s most iconic holiday brews ever.

Let’s go all the way back to when you started making Celebration IPA. What was your instinct to create a holiday-themed beer way back in 1981?

I had a homebrew shop in the mid-’70s, and I started buying hops directly from Yakima Valley farmers back then. Even as a homebrewer, I made a lot of beers that were dry-hopped, that were more intensely flavored. When we were designing our first commercial beers [at Sierra Nevada], which ended up being Pale Ale, Porter, and the Stout, we also played around with an IPA. We had old recipes from our test batches going back into the late ’70s.

So when we decided to open Sierra Nevada, we made the decision that people are probably not quite ready for a fairly intensely hoppy, multi-dry-hopped beer as our main offering. So we decided to do it the following year.

Okay, wow. It was such a different world.

I made a little less than 100 cases of beer for our first year for Celebration I have distinct memories of actually going and finding the hops I wanted to use in that beer. I picked out a specific lot from a baby Cascade field. In the United States, or at least in the Yakima Valley, you could plant the vines and get a partial crop your first year. And then, normally, the second year you’d get 100 percent of the crop. That’s not the case in many hop-growing regions. Even a little further south in Oregon, the first year after they plant, they don’t harvest those hops.

But at the first-year mark, the baby field of Cascades just smell beautiful and they were tight, little cones just packed full of lupulin. It seemed like really a great hop to feature in a dry-hopped beer.

Back in those days, we didn’t make a lot of beer. I bought one bale of this very special lot of hops and then used that to dry hop the Celebration Ale.

What’s fascinating to me is that back when you were doing this, there were really only the old-school European winter warmers that were either amber ales or dark German lagers or Belgian beers layered with winter spices. IPAs were a complete outlier. Was there ever a thought like, “Well, maybe we can layer in some of those more classic holiday winter warmer flavors” or were you focused solely on getting the most out of the hops that you could?

At that time, I did go and sample all the Christmas beers that I could get my hands on, which ranged from the ones you mentioned — Belgium, some German, and certainly Fritz Maytag at Anchor had started brewing his series, which was spiced. After that, we made the decision that we wanted to really focus on hops. So our decision was “Let’s not use any additional herbs and spices. Let’s really find hops that could deliver really unique and interesting flavors and couple that with malts that were toasted and roasted to sort of balance that hoppiness.”

Celebration was an intentional non-spiced Christmas beer.

This is long before the huge IPA boom that we’re still living in today. When did you see IPA start to catch on? Was it surprising when it finally did or was it something felt coming?

People back in the late ’70s weren’t accustomed to drinking intensely hopped beers. The people who enjoyed them were outliers, for sure. There was no real craft beer seen. Back then, if you were a beer drinker and you tasted one of our beers, the likelihood was our Pale Ale was probably pretty intense for you.

Right.

And that’s the feedback we received regularly, “Man, it’s so hoppy and bitter.” People probably didn’t know hoppy as a term so much back in the late ’70s or early ’80s, but they knew it was intensely flavored and had a lot of bitterness. And so we consciously realized it was an educational process to get the consumer to embrace and enjoy hops the way we did.

I mean, you can go back to our Pale Ale being an extreme example at 37 or 38 bitterness units back in 1980. That took a bit of warming up for a lot of consumers. But once they really started to enjoy the flavors that hops could deliver, I think there was a shift in the consumer behavior and drinking enjoyment of beers that are flavorful and hoppy.

I think one of the things we always kept at our forefront when we were designing beers was to try to make sure the beers had drinkability no matter how many hops they had. And so coming up with the way to balance those malted-sugars and the sweetness with the bitterness and flavor of the hops was something we focused on.

Sierra Nevada Celebration
Sierra Nevada Brewing

How do you find that balance?

You can have a pretty big influence over the residual body and sweetness by paying attention to your mashing temperatures and the grains you use. And so the modern IPAs tend to be less malty and sweet and more sort of in your face with hops. The Haze Craze has probably started to change that back a little bit to beers with lots of flavors, but not necessarily lots of bitterness and a balanced malt bill that helps counter the intensity of the hops.

We went through an education period with the drinker where they learned to appreciate hops more. Then when the West Coast IPA craze started to take off in the 2000s, I think the consumer was already drinking hoppier beers and so it was sort of a natural evolution to focus more on the hops and less on the malt backbone.

But when we first started, we felt that that balance of malt sweetness and hops was necessary to get people to think they were drinking a beer they could have more than one of.

That’s the staying power of Sierra Nevada, especially with Celebration or your Pale Ale, is consistency in that balance. Let’s talk a little bit about your shift from bottles to cans. Is that a practical issue so you can ship further and wider? Is it a supply issue?

The majority across a lot of channels are cans, mostly by consumer demand. Actually, right now, cans are not easy to get. It’s been a challenge across the can supply chain and across the world right now. But it seems like the consumers are embracing cans more. They have some benefits from certainly shipping to weight and recyclability.

They also do a better job of blocking light and resisting oxygen ingress from the bottle cap. Cans tend to be a little bit tighter seal, but it’s really been driven by consumer demand. Our Hazy Little Thing is a hundred percent cans, and it’s done very well with the consumer. But a beer like Celebration Ale will probably always have some availability in glass as well as cans.

I was a huge fan of the big three-liter magnum bottles. I’ve been trying to find some again…

We just found a whole bunch of those this last week!

They’re fantastic for sharing this time of year, or finding that bottle wrapped up under your Christmas tree and you know you’re in for a good time.

Tell us a little bit about how you choose who you are going to collaborate with? You’ve done a lot with German brewers like Bitburger and others. What’s the process there?

Well, they’re sort of all been different. The Oktoberfest collaborations, for instance, were really us wanting to do something globally with the brewing industry. Over the years, I’ve traveled a lot to Germany, the U.K., and Belgium and have created friendships with brewers from over the world. Part of us wanting to do the Oktoberfest collaboration was really to meld the minds of what the American craft brewing was doing and what the historical German brewers had been doing.

So it was a fun way for us to exchange brewing ideas. And in all cases where we partnered with these German breweries, we offered to assist if they wanted to produce something that was more in our wheelhouse with hops or dry hopping with styles that some of them hadn’t really explored much. And so it was a fun exchange of brewing concepts and beer styles and the camaraderie that existed in the brewing industry across most of the U.S. breweries, we were able to extend that out to our brewing friends around the world.

Sierra Nevada Celebration
Sierra Nevada Brewing

Trends come and go in beer. How do you parse those and look ahead to create a new line of beers?

Well, every Thursday morning I’m tasting new beers with our pilot brewing team. The ideas come from a variety of places from what we’re seeing in the beer world. We look at the trends. We also just think out of the box and do stuff that’s just really fairly wild as far as what we brew with.

How so?

We’ve brewed with a wide range of non-traditional brewing ingredients. We’ve done styles that are both historic and we’ve re-interpreted them. We’ve also created new stuff ourselves.

I’d say the inspiration comes from a whole bunch of different places and a lot of different people, not just one concept we have and we run with it. We try to pay attention to where the consumer is or where they may be going as well as sort of pushing the boundaries of brewing and beer making in the science of brewing.

Is there a beer style that you brewed, that you really love, that you wish would catch on but the public isn’t quite ready for yet or just won’t accept it?

There are two of those. Yeah. We made our Kellerweis, which is big in Germany. It’s very popular throughout parts of Germany, and there are different styles that have distinctive characteristics. I traveled to Germany a lot over the last 35 years, and it was the style I wanted to brew even over 30 years ago … to do a true Bavarian Keller wheat beer.

At the time, my sales manager said, “Nobody’s going to like that. The flavors are way too different than what people are used to.” There’s clove and very distinctive flavors you get from the yeast. The wheat is not a typical style that a larger beer-drinking audience would embrace. So I got sort of shot down. We ended up making a wheat beer but using conventional yeast. We didn’t quite meet the sales numbers at some of our distributors and retailers. And so, unfortunately, it slowly faded away.

Smoked beers are another one. We’ve been doing smoked beers on and off for 25 to 30 years. But we haven’t distributed them widely, but it’s a style that shows up on our radar every once in a while and so we brew it.

What’s your favorite memory of Celebration IPA through the years?

It’s a beer that we’ve always taken very seriously about how we brew it. So we do wait for the hops to all mature and get picked, and then start brewing. So those beers are brewed with hops that are just days out of the field. Right now, we send people up to Oregon and Washington a few weeks ahead of time to start identifying fields that we want to brew with. That connection with us and the farming community has been an educational process for both us and the growers.

So I’d say just developing that connection with the growers and identifying farmers that we think really produce stellar hops for that beer has been a fun learning and evolving experience over the last 40 years. That’s what really stands out for me.

×