There are more winter warmers and holiday beers on the local shelves this year than ever before. Some are brand-new concoctions from well-established and up-and-coming microbreweries. Many are odd regional specialties that never enjoyed distribution to South Carolina until recently. A few are longtime favorites that rarely disappoint.
Four years ago, one of my favorite domestic winter seasonals — California microbrewery Sierra Nevada's hoppy and un-spiced Celebration Ale — wasn't even allowed to be sold within the state, due to a lousy state law that put a six-percent cap on beer alcohol content (the rule stood for more 30 years). In mid-2007, state lawmakers adjusted the alcohol limit in beer from six to 17.5 percent, which allowed a flood of new ales and lagers into the local market.
At a sturdy but reasonable 6.8 percent a.b.v., Celebration Ale wasn't a super-strong "high grav," but it was too strong for distribution before the law changed. In late 2007, 12-packs of the ale showed up in local grocery stores and beer shops and sold like hotcakes.
Robust and full-bodied, Celebration Ale is a sturdy, flavorful American-style IPA. Sierra Nevada has been brewing it every year since 1981. Some consider it top be the first official American IPA — similar in strength and color to the traditional English IPA, but with a pronounced Northwestern U.S. hop character.
As always, this year's Celebration Ale features a potent blend of Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook hops. The brewers use the freshest whole-cone hops of the first growing season to dry-hop the fermenting wort. This intensifies the hop aroma in final beer. Sierra Nevada added the phrase "Fresh Hop Ale" to the label of the brewed to emphasize this practice. The quality of the hops helps determine the flavor and aroma character of the beer each year.
The hop profile of Celebration Ale 2011 might have a just a hint more floral character than previous years, but the signature citrus (grapefruit, tangerine) and grassy note are more than evident. It's a bright, refreshing, and fulfilling alternative to some of the stronger, slow-sipping winter beers of the year. It remains a favorite of mine.