Torpedo by Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada Torpedo

A classic: Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA

Name: Torpedo Extra IPA

Style: American IPA

The numbers: 7.2% ABV, 65 IBUs

Brewer: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, Chico, CA

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is a brewery of titanic influence on the craft beer movement.  Its 2014 production was a nudge north of one million barrels, making it, according to the Brewers Association, the third largest craft brewery in the country.

But the two breweries ahead of Sierra Nevada in the ranking are arguably “not that craft”.  In first place is D.G. Yuengling & Son, the East Coast regional/traditional beer giant and famously the oldest operating brewery in the US.  The vast majority of their production is their barley- and corn-based lager, which the Brewers Association only redefined as craft beer this year.  The other is Boston Beer Company, the publicly listed brewers of Sam Adams, and also Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard Hard Cider, the vast majority of whose output is contract brewed.

I have huge respect for both Yuengling and Boston Beer, and love their beers.  But it’s only when you get to Sierra Nevada that you find a company that bears all the hallmarks of a typical craft brewery.

Founded in 1980 (four years ahead of Boston Beer) by Ken Grossman – still owner and CEO – and Paul Camusi in Chico, California, it was the first organically successful brewery of modern times, growing to national prominence on its founders’ passion, hard graft and good luck.

Ken Grossman exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 80s.  Image via SierraNevada.com

Ken Grossman exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 80s. Image via SierraNevada.com

Ken Grossman was something of a well-educated drifter, working in a bike repair shop and spending his spare time hiking the Sierra Nevada mountains and homebrewing.  Influenced by meetings with the two true godfathers of the craft movement – Anchor Brewing’s Fritz Maytag and New Albion’s Jack McAuliffe – he and partner Paul Camusi took their life savings, scraped some money together from friends and relatives, and started a scratch commercial brewery at exactly the time Budweiser, Miller and Coors were at hitting their zenith and utterly dominating the US beer market.  Their first brewery was literally cobbled together, hand-built using discarded parts and second-hand dairy farming equipment.

The two fledgling brewers decided at first to get good at just one beer, and used a recipe they had devised for a pale ale that – alongside Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Steam Beer – sought to define a new American style of a tasty, hoppy beer.  (Other nascent craft breweries at the time were essentially directly interpreting European beer styles.)  They decided to do a few pretty radical things: leave the beer unpasteurized, bottle condition it, and hop it entirely with the new American hop, Cascade, which adds potent citrus and pine aromas to beer, especially when used late in the boil.

Despite many brushes with bankruptcy and the unfortunately acrimonious departure of Camusi from the business, Sierra Nevada has grown to be the 7th largest brewery in America, experimenting with many other beer styles, opening a large second brewing location on the East coast and making Ken Grossman a billionaire on paper.  100% of their beer has been brewed on site – which makes their steady, dramatic growth all the more impressive – and the company’s laser focus on quality while maintaining the “craft ethos” of their brewing techniques has made them a national and international role model to thousands of breweries who have started in their wake.

(For the full story, I highly recommend Ken Grossman’s autobiography, Beyond The Pale.)

And they make darned tasty beers.  So, I wondered to myself the other day, why have I never tried Torpedo, their second most popular brew after their Pale Ale?  I’m a diligent craft enthusiast, and I’ve been so for almost five years.  IPA is probably my favorite (at least most consumed) style right now, and I’ve sampled hundreds of them.  Torpedo is one of the trail blazer American IPAs, and its 93% rating on BeerAdvocate is reflective of the respect in which it is held by Beer Geek Nation.

I bought a six-week-old six pack at my local drugstore and pondered this gap on my IPA resume all the way home.

Sierra Nevada Torpedo in a glass

Sierra Nevada Torpedo in a glass

The beer pours out a vibrant tawny amber in the glass, forming an impressively thick, white head.  It has, by modern IPA standards, a relatively refined but complex nose, with rich pine resin mixing with orange and grapefruit peel and background notes of mango, dried apricot and moss.  The beer is late- and dry-hopped with Magnum, Crystal and Citra hops (no Cascade?!), which give it deep yet prototypically West Coast aromas.  As with the many, many Sierra Nevada Pale Ales I’ve drunk, the mouthfeel was rich, balanced and surprisingly light.  The rigorous quality assurance that Ken Grossman has been championing for more than 30 years shows.

(FYI: the name Torpedo comes from a cylindrical steel hop holder designed by Grossman that gets used for dry-hopping in the fermentation tank, ensuring the beer comes into thorough contact with all the hop cones.  Dry-hopping augments the fresh hop aromas, and is a signature of a modern American IPA.)

I sipped, savored and thoroughly enjoyed the beer, and thought to myself, that’s one fine IPA.

So why haven’t I been motivated to try this beer before, despite it having been near-nationally distributed the whole time I’ve lived in the States?

It’s because, in an ironic way, of the legacy that Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada have created in the craft movement.  They began by selling only in California, and, on top of consistently great beer, they initially became popular locally, because they were local.  Sierra Nevada is not local to me, and when I look to try a new IPA I tend to pick nearby breweries first.

Sierra Nevada also championed innovation, and by boldly brewing with all-new hop styles back in the 80s they laid down the template for successive generations of brewers who today are creating IPAs with dynamic combinations of hop varietals.  Many of which were not even available when Torpedo was nationally launched a mere five years ago.

And, over 30+ years, Sierra Nevada has helped condition drinkers’ palates to be experimental, and to seek new and challenging beers.  Torpedo is indisputably an excellent beer, and a definitive American IPA.  But it’s no longer a cutting edge beer, and in a world of Triple IPAs made entirely with Galaxy hops, session IPAs that have been dry-hopped to within an inch of their lives and Stone re-releasing Ruination to be even hoppier, why would the enquiring and lupulin-addicted IPA drinker turn to a classic beer such as this?

I love craft beer, and I couldn’t be happier that its market share growth is accelerating.  But every now and again I worry that it resembles a super nova, with its explosive growth coming at the expense of core strength and stability.  Is craft beer, with its rapidly expanding base of adventurous, innovative brewers, eating itself while it increases its presence on liquor store shelves and in neighborhood bars?

I’m going to go pour myself another delicious Torpedo and think about this.  I may even get round to writing another article about it.

Torpedo Cap

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