Sierra Nevada Brewing originally conceived its Beer Camp as a project for homebrewers, with a lucky few selected each summer to participate in a VIP experience at the brewery's headquarters in Chico, California. But people have been filling their camping trips, road trips and tailgating sessions with beer since time immemorial, so when Sierra Nevada announced last July that the 2014 edition of Beer Camp would be a multi-state, multi-brewer collaborative affair, it tapped into something instinctive, primordial, in the craft beer fan's psyche.
Since then, Sierra Nevada has been whetting palates with updates from the brewing processes with 12 different brewers from California, Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maine, and of course Wisconsin, via its brewery blog and Facebook page.
The basic idea? Participating breweries would collaborate with Sierra Nevada to produce limited-run beers to be sold in a variety pack across a nationwide distribution footprint. In addition, the formerly Chico-only Beer Camp gathering would be turned into a touring festival, Beer Camp Across America, with stops from coast to coast over this summer. Tickets are still available for the Chicago stop, which will be held at Navy Pier on Sunday, July 27.
Wisconsin is represented in Beer Camp Across America through New Glarus Brewing, which is not only the state's largest craft brewery, but its most highly praised too. Famous for limiting its distribution to within Wisconsin's borders, New Glarus beers from the locally ubiquitous Spotted Cow to its wax-top bottled fruit brews are highly sought after throughout the rest of the nation. This made New Glarus a natural fit for the project and its seeming goal to offer craft beer fans a chance to taste something new. Its collaboration with Sierra Nevada resulted in There and Back, an English-style bitter (or ESB).
New Glarus co-founder and brewmaster Dan Carey says he's a big fan of English pale ales and English bitters, and was inspired particularly by Timothy Taylor brewery in West Yorkshire to create an ESB for Beer Camp. "It's not a beer that's commonly made in the U.S. by craft brewers -- maybe in the old days, but not now," says Carey. "I thought it would be fun to brew something that I usually don't make, and Sierra Nevada doesn't make."
Carey has previously made a beer in a similar style named Dan's Best Bitter, though it's been many years since that was offered. Will that or any other other English-inspired brew make a return? "Eventually we will," he says. "It's something that's not really on the radar, as beers come into vogue the way wines do."
Originally from San Franciso, Carey notes that it was enjoyable to go back to California for the Beer Camp collaboration brew. "I've known Ken Grossman for about 30 years," Carey says, referencing Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman, "and I have a great respect for his company and everybody who works there. Brewers are inquisitive; we're all scientists by nature, and collaboration is a natural extension of being a scientist. It was a lot of fun."
The name for the beer, Carey explains, is a nod towards his trip, and the distance between New Glarus and Chico. "There and Back is a reflection of that," he says.
Brickhouse BBQ hosted a tap takeover on Saturday, July 19, serving short pours of 11 of the Beer Camp creations and full pints of There and Back from New Glarus. A trio of tasters split up the beers by region -- East Coast, West Coast, and everything in between, roughly speaking -- and proceeded to sample and share thoughts about the collaborations. Here's a look at each.
5.5% ABV, 38 IBUs
Like Sierra Nevada, Allagash has established a throne on the basis of a single label, an exemplar of its style, that has allowed the brewery to branch out and command respect for beers able to expand that initial identity. For Allagash, that's all things Belgian, and for Sierra Nevada, it's West Coast-style hopping, so Myron's Walk promises an optimal pairing. This beer looks glorious with its golden-orange hue and thick, pillowy and long-lasting head, and the aroma is invigoratingly herbal. The hops provide strong herb and wood flavors as well, and the smooth malt elements both stand up and linger, but the overall effect is still a bit understated -- this beer is not quite as bright as its Citra hops might suggest.
7.0% ABV, 35 IBUs
The Asheville Brewers Alliance is a joint effort of more than two dozen brewers operating in the increasingly prominent beer burg nestled in the Blue Ridge. The collaboration behind this Scottish ale was led by representatives of Green Man Brewery and Wicked Weed Brewing, and was crafted to highlight this upland Southern region's heritage, complete with an addition of North Carolina sweet potatoes. This beer is appropriately dark and malty, with a very well balanced smokiness that evokes tobacco. Tater Ridge only gets smoother as it warms, and stands out among the East Coast participants in Beer Camp.
8.5% ABV, 70 IBUs
The creators of the much adored Sculpin IPA put their "India Pale" spin on a lager, interestingly. This example, unfortunately, had some problems: the carbonation was nearly nonexistent, and a cabbage-y DMS note all but ruined the palate. It's insanely hoppy and rather strong, as anyone would expect from a Ballast Point "India" anything, but the uncharacteristic flaws made for a rough drinking experience.
8.5% ABV, 40 IBUs
Tied for the highest alcohol content in the group, Maillard's Odyssey definitely delivers boozy notes. Not as sweetly caramelized as the name implies, but those roasty flavors do come in way at the end. Hops intrude a bit on what could be a rich, luxurious beer otherwise.
7.7% ABV, 45 IBUs
Cigar City takes inspiration from its sun- and rain-drenched environs with its brewhouse creations, an approach that's evident in the description for this helles bock, though not quite as distinctly in the beer itself. Yes, hints of tropical fruit are present in the scent provided by several hops that include experimental varieties; pineapple and papaya are the most distinct among them, but the effect is subtle, and probably for the best. As a Maibock, its size stands out -- Yonder is very malty and sweet, and the alcohol is noticeable. It's respectable, whatever the latitude.
5.5% ABV, 45 IBUs
IPA kings Firestone Walker put their signature hop finish on a crisp. clean pilsner, resulting in exactly what you'd expect from this beer's name. The beer pours a sunny straw color with a properly bready nose. It's a perfect pilsner for about a hot minute before plunging into a hop-drenched finish, but both components are clean and the effect is really pleasant.
5.6% ABV, 40 IBU
You know a New Glarus beer is going to have great balance, and this is no exception. The hops bring a melony sweetness, alongside astringent banana peel notes from the yeast esters. Probably as close to a session beer as this lineup offers; it's very drinkable.
7.6% ABV, 60 IBUs
This Oregon brewery has the magic touch with stouts -- try its oatmeal stout, for example -- and this exciting Beer Camp contribution is a prime example. Double Latte has an appealing black walnut color with a pretty sycamore-bark head; the nose offers beautiful caramel-coffee notes. On the palate, a big, long, incredibly clean roast dominates creamy flavors and just a twinkle of hops on the back end. The effect is swirling cream into a perfect latte, and it all comes together in a finish that lasts at least a minute. This was the undisputed highlight of the West Coast contingent.
7.2% ABV, 45 IBUs
The pun is on the word "confusion," and this beer reps that a little too well. There's plenty of rye bite, and some candy-like sugary sweetness, but blindfolded, I wouldn't pick this out as a bock. It's not a bad beer, but too hoppy for the name, with malts that are overly restrained.
6.3% ABV, 50 IBUs
Russian River is known for its decidedly West Coast takes on Belgian styles, notably in its sour beers, and the brewery chose a Belgian blonde ale for its Beer Camp contribution. It's an attractive beer with a lovely head and rich, toasted-gold color; gentle citrus fruits dominate the nose. The palate, however, is big and boozy, with alcohol and hop skid vying for attention on the finish. It's ultimately a rather heavy-handed and notably sweet offering.
6.5% ABV, 45 IBUs
As aggro as 3 Floyds' reputation is, this beer brings a lot of pleasant hop flavor with minimal harsh bittering. Think small citrus fruits like tangerine and kumquat, with a grassy finish. Fans of Zombie Dust and Sierra Nevada's flagship pale ale should love this.
6.6% ABV, 50 IBUs
Altbier, the lager-like ale originally hailing from Germany's Dusseldorf region, has always been on the far periphery of American craft brewing, particularly compared to its regional rival in kölsch, which is starting to become more common. Victory Brewing, which offers a confident array of various brews, uses this collaboration opportunity to try their hand at this rarer, traditional style. Alt Route's bready aroma and solid, caramel sweetness belie its light-bodied character, as does a lingering bitterness. It's a bit big, but a solid take on an alt.
In an industry where access is king and visions of "white whale" beers dance through the heads of dedicated hopefuls who wait all night in lines for festival tickets and arrive hours early for release parties, releasing a variety pack representing some of the most trusted names in the craft beer world in extremely limited distribution across the country is both a bold move and a sign of the times.
Frank Beer, the distributor of both New Glarus and Sierra Nevada in the 11 counties surrounding Madison, received only 520 Beer Camp variety packs for the region. Released on July 18, these 12-packs prompted a flurry of social media chatter that morning among craft beer retailers and the enthusiasts who frequent them, and most sold out by early afternoon.
For those lucky enough to purchase a pack or attend the Brickhouse tasting, though, it was a chance to try rare one-offs from breweries not normally offered in these parts. Madisonians don't typically get to try East Coast breweries like Allagash and Cigar City, or Oregon all-stars like Ninkasi. Likewise, New Glarus' participation in Beer Camp is exciting for both Wisconsin-proud beer geeks as well as others throughout the country, who rarely have a chance to sample anything from this state's insular craft beer market, let alone its crown-jewel brewery.
The good news for Madison is that about 20 half-barrels of There and Back has been allocated to Frank. Starting this week, the New Glarus creation for Beer Camp is slated to be served on draught at about 30 restaurants and tap houses around the city, including Alchemy, the Blue Moon, Craftsman Table and Tap, Dexter's, Roast, Star Bar, and the Tipsy Cow. More is also expected to be available around the region, including Headquarters in Oregon, Showboat Saloon in Wisconsin Dells, and several locations in New Glarus itself.
Dan Carey is staying true to his reputation for creating balanced and drinkable beers at New Glaurs, and There and Back reflects that philosophy. "I had the idea the other brewers were going to try to wow everybody with something really extreme, so I wanted to be radical in my drinkability," he says. "I thought it would stand out for not being too much in a world of extreme beer."