July/Aug. 2009 California Country magazine
By Barbara Arciero
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico is home to one of the world's few "estate" beers, made from hops grown just a few feet from the company's brewhouse.
Estate beer creates a buzz
Fresher is better. If the concept makes sense for everything from bread to berries, why not beer?
That’s what the folks at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. were counting on a few years ago when they planted a 3-acre plot of hops across the parking lot from their brewhouse in Chico. And they haven’t been disappointed. The eye-catching crop is not only an attractive addition to the property, it is a key ingredient to one of the world’s few “estate” beers.
In other words, the Butte County brewery is borrowing a page from the winemaker’s playbook and using only hops grown on the premises. The result: Chico Estate Harvest Ale.
“We love hops here at the brewery,” said Steve Dresler, Sierra Nevada’s jovial brewmaster.
The hop plant is a vigorously growing perennial that once flourished in Northern California and is now staging a bit of a comeback. At the Sierra Nevada hopyard, runners from the plant begin to emerge from the ground in early spring, climbing skyward on a network of cables that reach up to 18 feet high. By August, the hops—which resemble tiny green pine cones—are ready for harvest. Then the real fun begins.
“My guys are all hopheads, so to speak, so they really enjoy working with them. It just adds a nice buzz to the workday,” Dresler said. “We’ll fire up the brewhouse in the morning, then we’ll start picking and using the hops immediately. You want to get them into the kettle as soon as possible.”
Typically in the beer-making process, hops are collected and dried for use throughout the year. But as they dry, their natural oils and resins break down and some of the big flavors become muted. In contrast, only “wet” or undried hops are used to craft Chico Estate Harvest Ale.
“This makes for a big beer,” Dresler explained. “The main difference is, you get a real flowery aroma from the hop. The mouthfeel of the beer is a bit oilier, and it’s real round and smooth on the palate.”
Sierra Nevada—which produces 13 bottled beers and numerous draft-only specialties—is a pioneer in wet hopping. Dresler started making a wet hop ale about a dozen years ago using hops from Washington state.
“Then we thought, why not make a second wet hop ale with hops that we grow ourselves. It kind of took off from there,” he said. “Last year we got about 300 barrels of beer from our 3 acres, which was enough to put into a small bottling. We’ve now expanded our yard to just over 10 acres.”
Dresler hopes to get 400 to 500 barrels from this year’s harvest, but expects it won’t last long. The initial bottling in 2008 sold out in just a couple of weeks and was gone from the taproom in less than a month.
“There is a real nice anticipation for it again this year,” Dresler said. “It’s a beer that everybody looks forward to.”
With the interest Chico Estate Harvest Ale has generated, Dresler and his team are weighing their options for future growth. The company owns a 30-acre site near the brewery and is considering planting barley in order to add another locally produced ingredient to its ale.
“I think the barley would be a lot of fun,” Dresler said. “It would be exciting to have all your ingredients come off for a truly estate beer.”
Chico Estate Harvest Ale will be available on draft and in 24-ounce bottles on an extremely limited basis starting in late August. Check for availability in the Sierra Nevada gift shop and taproom in Chico or in better beer stores nationwide.
For more information about Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., visit www.sierranevada.com.
Barbara Arciero is the managing editor for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.