A review of Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Across America 2016, a mixed pack so loaded with collaboration, you don’t know where to look. But them’s some tasty beers nonetheless.
There is always conjecture about where the US beer industry is headed, especially when it comes to craft beer. Just this week, Pete Dunlop posted a musing that no one could have predicted we’d be where we are today, so don’t even bother trying to figure out where we’ll be in the future.
I’m minded to concur, because where we are today is just crazy. And yesterday I bought the exact representation of the apex of American craft beer: Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Across America 2016 mix pack. It’s probably the most intense 12 pack of beer ever sold.
The background to Beer Camp is pretty cool. Back in 2008, Sierra Nevada invited some of its wholesalers to come spend a few days at its Chico brewery to learn about beer, and called it beer camp instead of boot camp. (In those days most wholesalers were all about selling light beer at Superbowl time, so Sierra Nevada figured edumacating them about styles of beer and the brewing process would help them sell craft. How times have changed.)
By 2011, Beer Camp had evolved into an opportunity for lucky competition-winning homebrewers to come and brew on Sierra’s pilot system, which is a nifty piece of marketing. They took it a couple steps further over the years by brewing the best beers at scale and putting them on shelves. The Sierra Nevada Beer Camp 12 pack was born: a cool way to showcase brewing talent and rack up some incremental sales.
Then in 2014, Sierra Nevada went big. They partnered with 12 of the best breweries in the country, made 12 separate beers for their mix pack, then got the brewers to join them on a bus that toured a few cities and gave beer geeks a chance to drink beer with their heroes.
(For your information, those 12 breweries were Allagash, Ballast Point, Bell’s, Cigar City, Firestone Walker, New Glarus, Ninkasi, Oskar Blues, Russian River, Three Floyds, Victory and “the brewing community of Asheville NC” (where Sierra Nevada was about to open a brewery). Basically a who’s who of craft beer in 2014; the beer geek equivalent of seeing who attended Elton John’s birthday party in a glossy.)
Something like that takes a ton of organising, so in 2015 there was no mix pack or tour. But in 2016 they’ve turned the volume up to 11 by:
- Partnering with 30 – yes 30 – breweries
- Put them in six teams of five, covering six separate regions of the States
- Organised a massive Beer Camp festival in each of those six regions
- Invited about 100 local breweries to come pour at each festival, in addition to the five collaborating breweries
- Ken Grossman and a team from Sierra Nevada will attend each festival (well, half of them have already happened)
The breweries Sierra is partnering with are, generally, a level or two down from the epic collaborators of the 2014 Beer Camp. But they’ve pretty much picked the coolest kids in each region to help out.
Brewing a beer for the north east? Let’s get Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head to get input from Trillium, Stoudts, Devils Backbone and Lawson’s. (I guess Shaun Hill was busy.) South east? I’m sure Funky Buddha, Creature Comforts, Austin Beerworks, Bayou Teche and Wicked Weed could make something halfway decent.
I could go on, but it looks like not many of the hottest breweries in the land didn’t return Ken Grossman’s call. Which says something about esteem in which Grossman and Sierra Nevada are held.
(Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the second most popular answer to “what’s your favorite beer?” when I interview someone from the industry. After Orval.)
Why do I say this mix pack is almost too much? I’ve written about collaboration in detail elsewhere, because it is a definitively crafty trend. Two or more breweries get together and release a beer under both their names, thereby bringing in each other’s drinker base and doing something a bit more risky than they might if it was a solo flight.
The beers are a one-off, so beer geeks go crazy for them, especially because they stoke fanboy curiosity, kind of like one of your favorite bands covering a song by another band you love. (“Oh man, Avenged Sevenfold covered Iron Maiden? I bet that sounds AWESOME!”)
The 2014 Beer Camp pack was a mix tape (or playlist for any younger readers) of awesome covers. Who wouldn’t want to taste what Sierra Nevada and Allagash would produce, in the same pack as Sierra and Ballast Point, or Firestone Walker. But in 2016 it’s more like a Band Aid-style charity single, recorded by too many artists to be able to pick one out over another. 31 breweries putting six beers in one 12 pack – it’s hard to know where to look!
That said, the beers are all excellent. A couple are really pretty phenomenal. I’m not going to run through them all (the Full Pint has done that, here), but there’s a kick ass IPA from the north west team, an interesting “southern table beer” from the south east, and, my favorite as a stout lover, a very punchy robust stout from the SoCal team, headed up by Beachwood‘s Julian Shrago. It’s intense, fruity, hoppy, rich and bitter. (I drank it in 90 degree heat, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure is mine.)
In summary, this pack is craft beer in 2016 folks; and 10 years ago you never would have seen it coming. It’s intense, amazing, off-the-wall, impressive and overwhelming, all at the same time. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s incredibly stimulating and so very cool. Just like craft beer.