Ken Grossman remembers the exact field at Roy Farms where he got the Cascade hops for his first batch of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. In 1981, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company had just opened, and he wanted to do a special release of a dry-hopped IPA, a beer almost unheard of at that time. Ken was serious about hop selection, and Lester Roy—grandfather of current Roy Farms owner Mike Roy—had given him his first ever hop field tour back in the 1970s.

“I specifically remember buying that lot of hops. They were from what’s called a baby field,” Ken recalls. He explains that conditions in the Yakima Valley of Washington state are often good enough to get usable hops the first season a new crop is planted.

“I remember loving this first-year field of Cascade that had been planted,” he continues. “They were small, compact cones but were dense with lupulin. I went with that lot for dry-hopping the first batch of Celebration Ale.”

In hop growing, a lot is a batch of baled hops of one variety grown in one location, usually totalling 10 to 20 tons of hops. The characteristics of a single hop variety can vary from location to location, so selecting a specific lot is important for a brewer who wants to achieve a particular aroma and flavour consistently.

That first batch entered the world just a few months before I did. When I first discovered the beer one late fall day in my twenties, the clean bitterness spoke of the bracing cold of the season, and created an image in my head of fresh oranges lying in a blanket of snow in the shadow of mountain pines. Hops and malt were just vague beer words I didn’t understand at the time, but I knew this beer captured something about the change of the seasons that no technical beer knowledge could explain.

What was once a novelty release is now a national undertaking. Ken’s bucolic memories of a single baby field of Cascade hops has given way to a complicated logistical operation, with different hops hitting peak ripeness in very narrow windows, across multiple farms in different states. What was once a single, special release is now an iconic beer, and brewing it on a large scale has proven to be a puzzle over its 40 year history.

The person solving that puzzle is Tom Nielsen, who oversees research and development and raw materials at Sierra Nevada, which operates production breweries in Chico, California, and Mills River, North Carolina, just outside Asheville. As the president of the Hops Research Council and the chair and co-founder of the Hops Quality Group, two national trade organizations that advance the science of growing hops and using them in brewing, Tom is a leading expert on hops. And he needs to be, because the hop sourcing for Celebration poses a unique challenge.

The character of Celebration is driven by Cascade and Centennial hops, and it takes a lot of both to brew each year’s batch—45,000lbs (20,412kg) of Cascade and 30,000lbs (13,608kg) of Centennial. Sierra Nevada played a major role in Cascade becoming the hop that defined the early days of American craft brewing by using it in the recipe for its Pale Ale, and showcasing its bright notes of grapefruit and pine. Centennial wasn’t even named when Celebration was first brewed, but Grossman loved the way it complemented the citrus, pine, and floral notes of Cascade, and decided to add it to the mix.

Published by Pellicle Magazine written by David Nilsen

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