Sierra Nevada Pale Ale needs no introduction, or improvement, but Maine’s Oxbow Brewing Co. put a local spin on it. Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale needs no introduction: It is the most recognizable of American craft beers. But it is a familiarity that breeds admiration rather than contempt. It is the standard bearer for American pale ales, a beer both so brilliant and ubiquitous that I wonder what we’ve done to deserve it.

In early July, brewers from Oxbow trekked to Sierra Nevada’s Mills River Brewery, just south of Asheville, North Carolina, to collaborate with this venerable beer titan. It wasn’t precisely a pilgrimage; Sierra Nevada’s home base is Chico, California. But Mills River, opened in 2015, has become a mecca in its own right, a playground for beer lovers that also happens to supply us with that iconic, fundamental, wondrous pale ale.

Oxbow’s brewers arrived, eager to pay homage to the classic. But how to do so? What could they pitch to Sierra Nevada’s brewers? What could this farmhouse brewery, housed on a muddy road littered with chickens, known for its idiosyncratic beers chock full of this and that, bring to a beer over 40 years old – a beer whose character is etched into the brains of millions?

“We thought about suggesting to use our house yeast, but immediately shot that idea down,” said Greg Jasgur, Oxbow’s director of operations. It had to have that clean Chico yeast that let the hops and malt play feature roles.

Kevin Dwyer, Oxbow’s Newcastle production manager, shovels hops. Photo courtesy of Greg Jasgur

They then considered all-Maine ingredients. “But really, what is Sierra Nevada Pale,” they asked, “without whole-leaf Pacific Northwest Cascade hops?” A true tribute to the original needed to possess that distinctive perfumy, assertive citrus.

They thought about proposing all Maine-grown malts, “but since we were brewing this beer in North Carolina, we felt we needed to include that locality as well,” Jasgur recalls. So they pitched a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale featuring both Maine and locally grown North Carolina malts.


And once they started thinking about local sourcing, they also began considering other ingredients – Oxbow is a farmhouse brewery, after all. Both breweries have their own apiaries, and so honey – an ingredient that Oxbow uses often – buzzed onto the scene.

“We’ve always found that honey is really one of the best ways to include local terroir into the brewing process,” said Jasgur.

Ultimately, the brewers decided to make two different batches of the beer, then blend them together: one made with Maine malts (from Aroostook County’s Maine Malt House) and raw North Carolina honey, the other made with North Carolina malts (from Asheville’s Riverbend Malt House) and Maine wildflower honey.

Sierra Nevada/Oxbow Honey Pale Ale is available on draft in Portland at Oxbow, Slab and Novare Res. Photo courtesy of Greg Jasgur

The result is a splendid homage to the original. Sierra Nevada/Oxbow Honey Pale Ale introduces itself with floral, honeyed aromas, followed by grapefruit-leaning citrus and a slightly spicy finish. It is a bit lighter in color than the original, with more restrained maltiness. But like the classic, it is balanced and refreshing – interesting enough to keep your attention, but also approachable enough for a proper session. Like a great cover song, it is both familiar and fresh, invoking memory and sparking novel curiosity.

Honey Pale Ale is available on draft at Oxbow’s Portland tasting room, as well as Novare Res and Slab (and the Mills River brewery, for the most devoted of pilgrims). While Sierra Nevada’s original Pale Ale is in its fourth decade, Honey Pale Ale is a moment in time, and before long, it will be gone forever.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.

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