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40 years ago, Ken Grossman created America’s most influential ale

Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada's founder and original brewer
(Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.)

Not the first American craft beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale nonetheless is the most influential

When Sierra Nevada Pale Ale launched 40 years ago, Anchor Steam Beer had already been on the market for nine years. Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder and original brewer, did not create the United States’ first craft beer.

Only the most influential.

Crisper and with a stronger hop presence than than the amber-colored steam beer, pale ale paved the way for the bracing, bitter brews that became American craft beer’s trademarks. Sierra Nevada Pale was a revolution poured into a 12-ounce bottle.

“We intentionally brewed something that would stand out,” Grossman said during a telephone interview last week. “Ninety percent of the people who tasted it thought it was way too hoppy.”

Grossman noted that he had briefly considered two other styles for Sierra Nevada’s debut: a roasty stout (“we thought it would cover up our mistakes”) and an India Pale Ale (“a little too intense for the consumers of that age”). His pale ale, while not as bold as an IPA, was sufficiently different than everything else on the market.

Yet Sierra Nevada Pale required two key breaks to succeed: 1) Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, an arbiter of culinary excellence, championed the beer; and 2) Grossman’s daughter had a friend whose father was a buyer for a major grocery chain.

Forty years later, Sierra Nevada is a 1-million-barrel-a-year enterprise. The country’s third-largest craft brewery, after Yuengling and Boston Beer, it is distributed in all 50 states, across Europe and Asia. The company is celebrating this year’s anniversary with 40, a West Coast IPA, and by brewing a hard kombucha. Still, Grossman’s attention isn’t wandering far from his roots.

He regularly samples beers from his breweries in Chico and Mills River, N.C. Last week, he had been sipping Bigfoot barleywine, Hazy Little Thing IPA, and the beer he always returns to, Sierra Nevada Pale.


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