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Heading for the Mountains – The Sierra Nevada Mountains

07 Apr

A few weeks ago a friend of mine and I had the opportunity to attend a truly wonderful beer event. The event, a beer pairing dinner with Sierra Nevada beers and Publix’s Aprons Cooking School in Mandarin showcased the great brews of Sierra Nevada and the cooking talents of the chefs at Aprons. In all, five courses were offered, each paired with a different brew from the Chico, CA brewery.

Before each course Terrence Sullivan, assistant brewmaster and field educator for Sierra Nevada spoke about the brewery and the specific beer paired with the course. Terry studied at the University of California at Davis were he obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1994. While going to school, he worked for Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley for two years, and later worked for Golden Pacific Brewing Company in Emeryville.  In May of 1994 he joined Sierra Nevada as a shift brewer. In 1997 he was promoted to Cellar Manager when the brewery expanded. Recently, Terry was promoted to Field Educator, working closely with the brewery’s marketing department. In this new role, his technical brewing knowledge is an asset while working with consumers and wholesalers to educate them about the Sierra Nevada brewing process. His insights were witty, succinct, and very informative.

As is the case with many great breweries, Sierra Nevada had humble beginnings and rose from the founder’s love of exceptionally good beer. Back in 1976 Ken Grossman, a recent chemistry and physics graduate of Butte Community College and California State University at Chico opened a brewing supply store called The Home Brew Shop in Chico. He supplied the local home-brewing community with equipment, materials, and advice, but dreamed of opening his own brewery.

Soon his dream became a reality when he and co-founder Paul Camusi assembled – just two years after Ken opened his brewing store — a brewery from second-hand dairy tanks, a soft-drink bottler, and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries. They used only premium ingredients and, as would become their brew’s signature flavor, large amounts of hops. The result was a stunningly good pale ale first produced in 1980 from a brewery named after the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. The rest is brewing history right out of a fairy tale (one that involves beer instead of princesses, of course).

Demand for Sierra Nevada products grew rapidly and by 1989, Ken was looking for a new site for his operation. He traveled to Germany to look for a brew house and found a traditional copper, 100-barrel house which he immediately bought and brought back to California, piece by piece. This met demand for a while, but the brewery soon needed to expand again. In 1997, Ken commissioned the original coppersmiths to match new kettles to the originals, bringing the brewery’s total capacity to almost eight hundred thousand barrels per year.

Today Sierra Nevada is revered world-over as a pioneer in highly-hopped, premium quality beers. They were at the fore-front of the craft beer revolution and are poised for even greater things in the near future. The company also maintains an environmentally conscious attitude through its recycling, composting, solar energy (they have one of the largest solar cell arrays in the country), heat recovery, and CO2 recovery programs.

The Courses and the Beers

First Course – Huevos Rancheros paired with Sierra Nevada Kellerweis

Normally considered a breakfast dish, this version of huevos rancheros fit in nicely as an appetizer course for the tasting. The enticing mixture of egg, chorizo sausage, refried beans, cheese, and spicy salsa roja all piled on a fried corn tortilla was a welcome treat to begin our epicurean journey. Paired with the refreshing Kellerweis wheat beer this tasty treat was a perfect starter.

Kellerweis is unique in that it is brewed in the traditional Bavarian style of open fermentation – meaning that instead of being sealed the fermentation tanks are open at the top. This technique imparts depth and flavor in the beer not found in many American wheats. The brew pours a hazy yellow with a good frothy head and smells of clove and banana. The taste is citrusy, as are most wheats, but this one also had a touch of apple to me. It was a perfect match for the spicy strong flavors of the dish.

Second Course – Handmade Sauerkraut Pierogies paired with Sierra Nevada Glissade Golden Bock

Though I am of Bavarian decent, I have never been a huge fan or sauerkraut. These pierogies, however, were delicious! Pierogies, for the uninitiated, are small dumplings filled with an assortment of sweet or savory fillings. In this case, they were filled with well drained sauerkraut. They were then sautéed in butter with sweet onion slivers and served with a dollop of sour cream. Not too heavy, and not too tart, this second offering went down very well with Sierra Nevada’s Glissade Golden Bock.

Glissade is a mountaineering term that means to slide. Mountain climbers often slide, or glissade, down mountains once they have climbed to the peak. The word fits this refreshing seasonal offering as it smoothly slides down your palate. The beer pours a golden yellow with copious head that hangs around to the last sip. Your nose is tickled by the scents of sweet malts, floral hops, and just a hint of citrus. The brew drinks remarkable well with a slight sweetness, breadiness, and nuttiness. The richness of the sour cream and sourness of the sauerkraut played nicely with this refreshing mid-season treat.

Third Course – Spicy Thai Steamed Mussels paired with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

When I was in Belgium I discovered a renewed love for the humble mollusk known as the mussel. The Belgians are quite found of this tasty shellfish and bring you bucket upon bucket of them. This iteration of the dish was a bit different with the addition of spicy Thai seasonings which made the broth accompanying them, and the mollusks themselves, practically explode with flavor. This intriguing and flavorful dish was paired with Sierra Nevada’s flagship brew, the Pale Ale.

What can be said about this brew that has not already been said many times? This is the beer that Sierra Nevada built its reputation on and continues to be nearly synonymous with world-class pale ale. My advice, drink it and drink it often!

Fourth Course – Country Fried Steak with Sweet Onion Porter Gravy paired with Sierra Nevada Porter

Good down-home cooking kicked up to city folk eating is hard to come by. Yet, the chefs at Aprons managed to find a way to put a decidedly different spin on an already decadent dish. As the chef prepared this dish his banter began. “Ya know, when I was thinking about a dish to pair with the porter I asked myself, ‘Self, you like beer and you like fried stuff, what would go together with this?’” A eureka! Look followed and he continued, “Fried stuff with gravy made from beer!”  And that is just what he did. He created a crispy country-fried steak then used the pan scrapings and a dark roux combined with the stout beer to make a gravy any beer lover would eat with a spoon right out of the pan – the heck with the steak!

With the gravy already deliciously rich over the steak, paring the dish with Sierra Nevada Porter was a given. This thick, dark beer pours robustly into your glass and smells of chocolate and caramel. The taste is of darkly roasted malts and chocolate. A perfect accompaniment to the rich food it was paired with.

Fifth Course – Pear and Blue Cheese Ice Cream paired with Sierra Nevada Torpedo

The final course was somewhat experimental and interesting in concept if not execution. But, alas this was not a very good finish to the food portion of the evening. The ice cream had very little pear in it and way too much blue cheese. The result was a salty, cheesy, yucky mess. Had they amped up the pear and just made the blue cheese a hint, it may have been better.

On the other hand, Sierra Nevada Torpedo was, as were all the other beers, excellent. Torpedo is called an extra IPA because it is dry-hopped using a revolutionary device – the torpedo – developed by Sierra Nevada. These guys are serious about hops and wanted this beer to be a big IPA. Through innovation, they succeeded. This beer pours into your glass a beautiful amber color and assaults your nose with wonderful grapefruit, lemon, and pine notes. The flavor is a wake-up call of big, hoppy, pine with grapefruit and herbal notes. If you like hops, this brew is for you!

The evening I spent with the guys from Sierra Nevada and Team Hophead at Publix was a treat on many levels. Not only was the company great – Steve Flores of Kickback’s, old friends Bill and Heather , David and his wonderful wife of Team Hopheads, and the gang from Sierra Nevada – but, the venue was fun and classy. Given an opportunity to attend another beer pairing at Aprons, I will leap at the chance – and you should, too!

Long Live the Brewers!

Cheers!

Marc Wisdom

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