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Sierra Nevada's winter ale not quite celebratory

Patrick Beach, Bock 'N' Ale Ya

Staff Writer
Austin 360

You know I love Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, the winter seasonal release from Chico, Calif. You might also know that I buy cases and cases of it I think 14 in 2009, a personal best when it's available, so I have it year-round. I have vintages going back to at least 2001, and the beer, a big, beautiful, near-perfect American India Pale Ale, is wholeheartedly revered by a huge number of beer fans. Three hops, two kinds of malt, perfection. A good friend and I engage in an annual competition about who finds it first and drinks the first one. To repeat: I love Celebration.

But not this year.

My colleague Mark Rosner told me the eagle had landed at the North Austin Costco, where it was going for under $25 a case, so the Friday before Halloween I drove there, bought a primo membership and headed home all aquiver with three cases. This is known as "a slow start" in our house.

I noticed right away the beer seemed short on both malt and hops. It had a respectable hop nose (from dry-hopping, I suspect) but not a lot of bite, and certainly not that familiar malty mouth feel. My wife wasn't home when I poured it, but when she arrived she took a drink and thought I was messing with her, trying to fool her into thinking that something that wasn't Celebration was.

A side-by-side tasting of the 2009 and 2010 galvanized our conviction that the 2010 came up seriously short.

So now I'm into this for, like, $175, right? And I'm hoping Costco got a bum load or something. So I go to my neighborhood H-E-B for a six-pack to test that hypothesis and ... same thing. It's thin, it's off and there's globs of stuff in the bottom of the bottles.

E-mails to PR people for the brewery bounced to Theresa Hildebrand, quality assurance tech at Sierra Nevada, who says:

"Thanks for the detailed, candid feedback. I'm sorry the 2010 batch did not meet expectations. No, we have not changed the recipe, although the hops and malt inevitably change slightly from year to year due to weather and harvest conditions.

"Having said that, please send me the date code from the bottle so that I can pull some of that same batch (control) for further analytics and follow-up tasting in Sensory. If you still have a couple of unopened bottles, it would be great to have them for a side-by-side comparison with the Library control I will be pulling. We maintain beer from each tank we package — 'Library beer.' In the event a concern arises, it is best to be able to compare the concern with the library (control) beer — same bottling date/time — optimal storage temperature."

That was Nov. 2. On Nov. 10 the mailer arrived from Chico, and my two sample bottles went out the following day.

Meanwhile, as first reported on the Liquid Austin blog, I decided to enlist the professional palates of Jordan Weeks and Caleb Cranford at South Austin Brewing Co. We did a side-by-side of a 2009 and two '10s, one from Costco and one from H-E-B.

"There's something wrong with that," Cranford said after a mere sniff of the Costco sample. "I don't even need to taste that."

Then he took a taste: "It's got a pronounced bitterness that's not from the hops. There's some kind of funky, baby diaper aroma in there."

Both guys had several guesses about what might be going on. Weeks thought the company might have switched maltsters. Cranford also guessed some change-up in raw materials.

Weeks asked Cranford if he'd have known it was a Celebration if the bottle weren't sitting there.

"I wouldn't know it's a Sierra."

"It's not celebrating anything!" Weeks said.

At my request, Mike Baldwin at Zax Restaurant & Bar sent this review, which I've shortened for space:

"Definitely not the home runs of years past. I'm sure that I will serve a few kegs of it, and I will gauge customer feedback as well."

Folks at the Ginger Man tried it both on draft and in the bottle and agreed there's something off.

And it's not just an Austin phenomenon. A pal in the Minneapolis area thinks something's amiss, too.

Check the Liquid Austin blog for updates, and I welcome your reaction to this year's edition at the address below.

Beer TV: "Brew Masters," premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday on the Discovery Channel, puts the spotlight on Dogfish Head, the Delaware brewery founded by former home brewer (and part-time rapper) Sam Calagione. Examining the nexus of art and industry, the episode I previewed focuses on the process of making Bitches Brew, an imperial stout brewed in collaboration with Sony to commemorate the Miles Davis album of the same name.

The Alamo Drafthouse Ritz will be screening the program live every Sunday, starting with the premiere, and they'll have DFH goodies on hand to get you in an agreeable mood. And it's free to get in.

Speaking from the brew pub in Rehoboth Beach, where he was brewing a test batch of another crazy beer — this one using yeast from the skins of dates grown in Cairo, Egypt — Calagione said he was initially cool to the idea: "Dogfish was one of a number of breweries under consideration, and we had too many projects going on and weren't comfortable with the whole Hollywood process."

However, with Zero Point Zero Productions aboard, things got more comfortable. The company received five Emmy nominations last year for "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations."

"It's not reality TV; it's just documentary style," Calagione said. "They're not trying to cause drunken fistfights in bars or create conflict."

They've shot six of the seven episodes slated for this season; the last one for this season requires a trip to Finland. And Calagione reports his passport has gotten quite a workout: They went to New Zealand to brew with smoked tamarillos, otherwise known as "tree tomatoes," and to Peru for chicha, the purple maize that's traditionally chewed before going in the brew pot.

You get the idea.

The preview episode makes Dogfish seem like a fun place to work. They knock off early on Friday afternoons to play bocce and drink beer.

"After about four beers and a half a game of bocce, that's when the really good ideas come forward," Calagione says in the episode.

However, it's not all fun and games, especially on the bottling line in that same episode. A stainless steel tube falls into a bottle, and workers have to go through and eyeball hundreds of bottles, quarantining an entire pallet of 90 Minute IPA to find the offending metal.

Calagione says his goal is to further spotlight and demystify craft breweries in America, of which there are some 1,600.

"When we were talking with Discovery, it was an interesting perspective, because they were like, 'This will make your sales take off,'" Calagione said. "And we were like, 'We can't make enough beer as it is.'"

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603