by Paul Deines
Without Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and its founder Ken Grossman, American craft brewing would not be what it is today; in fact, it might not exist. Grossman turned his brewing hobby into a career in the mid-1970s, first by opening a homebrew supply shop, then by selling his own beers. Sierra Nevada opened in Chico, CA, in 1979. The world-famous pale ale it produced a year later essentially kickstarted the move toward hop-forward ales in this country. Today, Sierra Nevada has one of the largest footprints of any craft brewery in the world, with a repertoire that includes some perennial favorites like Bigfoot, Celebration, and Narwhal.
In July 2013, Sierra Nevada announced it would celebrate the opening of a new North Carolina brewing facility with a nationwide tour and a limited edition 12-beer variety pack, Beer Camp Across America. The pack would include 12 beers in 12 different styles, brewed in collaboration with 12 different breweries. The tour started in July 2014, and the Beer Camp packs began appearing in stores soon thereafter.
I picked up my Beer Camp 12-Pack three weeks ago and started working my way through the series, starting with the lighter and more happy brews (those most likely to fade quickly) and finishing with the darker, malty ales. Here are my notes for the full rep …
Torpedo Pilsner (Czech Pilsner, in collaboration with Firestone Walker Brewing; 5.2% ABV) Glassine yellow hue and sudsy head. The New Zealand hops lend the nose spicier and more flowery character than most American lagers. It drinks easily, with a smooth light malt foundation and a resiny bitterness that keeps things interesting. Not the most dynamic brew on earth, and really not that different from Firestone Walker’s pilsner, Pivo.
Electric Ray (Pale Lager, in collaboration with Ballast Point Brewing; 8.5% ABV) Translucent golden amber. This is a lush lager, with the smell of toasted cereal, grapefruit pith, and dry pine needle. The first sip is juicy as hell, with lots of fruit and caramel, but the whole thing is a little hot from ethanol (it’s one of the two booziest entries in the series) and the body is thick for a lager. It’s enjoyable as a one-off but too boozy sweet for regular consumption. At least for me.
Chico King (Pale Ale, in collaboration with 3 Floyds Brewing; 6.5% ABV) Definitely has the fruity, wet grass bouquet of a 3 Floyds pale, with russet-amber hue. Not as baroque a nose as your Dreadnaught or Zombie Dust, but still alive with orange- and lemon-peel with bready undertones. Taste is closer to Sierra Nevada’s flagship ale, with plenty of hoppy bitterness over a biscuit foundation. Still, there’s a fun ballet of citrus throughout.
Alt Route (Altbier, in collaboration with Victory Brewing; 6.6% ABV) Ruby red with a fluffy, lacy head, this ale smells maximum caramel, with overtones of woodsmoke and orange. Full-bodied, roasty and bright. I’m really quite enamored of the candy malt in conversation with the citric hop notes. Coolly midrange in the booze department, this substantial but refreshing entry may contend for my favorite in the series.
There and Back (English Bitter, in collaboration with New Glarus Brewing; 5.6% ABV) Reddish-gold, hazy, durable rocky head. Sweetly aromatic hops dominate the nose, a nicely unabrasive forest glen and light grape; there’s a brut crispness as well. There and Back is mealy and, yes, bitter, but surprisingly light. There’s a brace of lemon, grape, and grass, and a body of sourdough bread, with virtually no lingering aftertaste. Sessionable, refreshingly dry – not a showstopper, but I’d buy a sixer of this in a heartbeat.
Myron’s Walk (Belgian Pale Ale, in collaboration with Allagash Brewing; 5.3%) Looks and smells much like a Saison, with a golden straw hue and a bold fluffy head. Peppery spice and lemony hop notes sit atop a sweet biscuit base. The taste is mostly spicy-sweet malt, with little shocks of lemongrass. You get all the tartness with virtually no bitterness. A comfortably doughy and fragrant ale that keeps the booze low. Nice entry.
Yvan the Great (Belgian-Style Blonde, in collaboration with Russian River Brewing; 6.3% ABV) Light-gold, slightly opaque. Musty yeast smell, full of earth and wet grass, with hints of pear and lemon-zest. The taste is bready, slightly resinous, with the tartness of a tripel. Medium bodied and quite dry. I’ll be honest, though: this is pretty weak sauce, considering the pedigree of the brewers. Nothing objectionable, but I’m not in love.
Yonder Bock (Maibock, in collaboration with Cigar City Brewing; 7.7% ABV) Deep gold with an inner body of red and a one-finger light-tan head. Juicy citrus in the nose not unlike CCB’s Jai Alai IPA. Mango, orange, guava, kiwi with a sourdough undercurrent. There’s a sweet ethanol burn in the smell also. Taste is juicy, with a fruit-loop sugary quality and a raw hop bitterness resting against the malt. Lots of spice, too. Cinnamon, nutmeg and a little pepper, almost smoky. The mouthfeel is full and hot. As bocks go, this is a winner. Totally drinkable despite the high ABV.
Tater Ridge (Scottish Ale, in collaboration with Asheville Brewers Alliance; 7.0% ABV) Dark ruby, gemlike in its refraction, robust mocha latte head. Aroma of dessert bread, with doughy malting and figs, currants, walnuts and aromatic hopping. The taste is starchy, with dominant caramel and lingering bitterness. Can’t tell from sweet potatoes, but a lot of toffee, plum, mandarin orange, grainy bread and brown sugar. Thickish mouthfeel. Enjoyable, if slight, example of the style.
CANfusion (Rye Bock, in collaboration with Oskar Blues Brewery; 7.2% ABV) Orange amber, with an assertive pine-needle, forest floor, and grapefruit hop bouquet. Wonderfully fragrant but not at all bock-like. Malting not in evidence in the nose. And good god, is there a lot of sweet citrus fruit to taste, mingling with toasted crusty bread, brown sugar, and cereal. Medium body, but quite refreshing. Little evidence of alcohol. It’s actually like an IPA crossed with a hearty rye ale. Love it!
Double Latte (Milk Stout, in collaboration with Ninkasi Brewing; 7.6%) Viscous black, creamy head, massive dark roast coffee, baking chocolate, and a slightly astringent note. Also, some leather and cigar tobacco. The lactose is apparent in the creamy mouthfeel, and the taste is something like and espresso shot with hints of dark chocolate, plus figs and dark cherry. There’s yet a hoppy bitterness that plays nicely again sweet roast. A good confection, milky and bittersweet, but nothing cathartic.
Maillard’s Odyssey (Imperial Dark Ale, in collaboration with Bell’s Brewery; 8.5%) Jet black, staid tan head. Lots of dark fruits: plum, cherry, meaty figs. Also, a bit of coffee and marzipan. The taste is wonderfully baroque, with dark roast, toffee and coconut intermingling with raisins, dates, coconut and even a little lemon zest. Little hop character. As a work of fragrant and gustatory playfulness, this is a triumph. Sticky-but-delicate mouthfeel and only a touch of alcoholic burn make it wonderfully drinkable.
For me, this last beer was the winner by a mile, if we’re picking winners. I’d gladly buy a six pack of Alt Route, There and Back or CANfusion, and to be honest there were few disappointments and no real dogs in the series. In fact, this is about as much fun as I’ve had drinking beer in a while, seeing how some of the best brewers – new and storied – work together.
Anyway, the Beer Camp tour is over, but you can still find these 12-packs around, at least in New York. Do yourself a favor and take the journey.