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Review: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

One of the more amazing statistics in craft beer is a date: 1980, the year Sierra Nevada Brewing Company was founded. Craft beer is so omnipresent these days that it's difficult to imagine not seeing hundreds of bottles on the shelves of your local store. Way back before it was popular -- the Brewer's Association lists close to 2,400 breweries in operation last year -- Sierra founder Ken Grossman was brewing hoppy, flavorful beer in Chico, California.

It didn't take long -- the winter of 1981 specifically -- for Grossman to brew the first batch of Celebration Ale. A celebration of the winter season, the beer features the first hops of the growing season. According to the brewery, over 90 percent of the world's hop harvest happens between Aug. 31 and Oct. 31. All of these hops are used throughout the calendar year, but fresh hops "are the freshest dried hops to come from the fields, typically within seven days of harvest.

"Can hops possibly be the same on Nov. 1, one day after harvest, as they are on July 25, nearly one year after growing in the fields? The answer is no."

It's important to note that Celebration is a "fresh hop" ale, but it's not a "wet hop ale". The difference is that wet hops are un-dried, packed, and shipped from the field within 24 hours. I tried two wet hop beers recently -- Jack's Abby's Mom & Pop's Wet Hop Lager and Sierra's Northern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop Ale -- and found them to be very different from Celebration Ale. Sierra considers the fresh hops in Celebration to be like the spices in your cabinet, best when fresh and losing potency thereafter. The wet hop ales were earthier and less spicy, like drinking a tea steeped with recent grass clippings. The hops in the Jack's Abby offering came from the family farm in Connecticut, so you know they were fresh, but it wasn't as crisply bitter as some of the India Pale Lagers from the Framingham brewery.

celebration.jpg Sierra brews several IPAs, but Celebration Ale has long held a special place in the hearts of beer drinkers. The timing, for one, elevates the brew. When cold weather hits our beers get thicker and darker. Some holiday-branded beers get spicier. Featuring Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops, Celebration Ale is a welcome outlier. Every few weeks this time of year, a fellow hop head brings up their love for Celebration to me.

"I could drink Sierra Nevada Celebration all year long," Craft Beer Cellar co-owner Kate Baker said last week during an interview for a story on something totally different.

Me, too. You can buy Celebration in a six-pack, but my twelve-pack comes adorned with the same red, snowy mountainside motif that gets me skipping to the cooler every time I see it. Poured into a tulip glass, Celebration appears redder and denser than many IPAs. Little bits of sediment bob about. As the head recedes, off-white lacing coats the glass.

The aroma on this brew is a nearly perfect mix of damp earth and citrus, with sweet caramel underneath. This is a big, rich IPA, with pine and bitter grapefruit dominating the flavor profile. There's plenty to please the hop heads, but a slightly sweet finish keeps things in check. It's a wetter finish, if that makes sense, than some of the newly popular Vermont and Maine IPAs, yet the beer still manages to be clean and refreshing.

The stats on this one: 6.8 percent alcohol by volume and 62 IBUs. Pick some up before it's gone.

-- Meadhall in Kendall Square is hosting its 2nd annual "12 brewers of Christmas" event on Thursday, Dec. 12. Last year, the event raised more than $9,000 for Toys for Tots.

From 7 p.m. until close, you can bring a $10 donation or a toy of equal value to get in the door. Once inside, you can sample rare beers from Allagash, Brooklyn, Dogfish Head, Duvel-Ommegang, Green Flash, Left Hand, Oskar Blues, Pretty Things, Sierra Nevada, Smuttynose, Tröegs and Victory. A total of 110 beers will be available, including two casks.

I attended last year's event and they were pouring some pretty special stuff. There will be numerous raffle items including rare bottled beer, brewery wearables, glassware, etc. available on both floors, with all proceeds going to Toys for Tots.

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