REVIEW: Fresh hops make Celebration Ale a true seasonal

Brian Sorensen

It’s no secret that Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is my favorite brewery on the planet. As I wrote in an earlier review, Sierra Nevada served as my “gateway” beer brand – taking me from the mundane to the exquisite in terms of total beer experience. So the beer-geek fanboy in me was beyond excited to see that founder Ken Grossman had recently wrote a book about the brewery’s history called Beyond the Pale. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, which details the quick ascent of the brewery and its amazing roster of beers. One of the biggest hits on that roster was – and still is – Celebration Ale.

First brewed in 1981, Celebration Ale has built a cult following like no other. In Beyond the Pale Ken Grossman talks about one devoted fan who – when Sierra Nevada distribution was limited – would use his frequent flyer miles to travel from the east coast to California to pick up a supply of the coveted beer. Fortunately, Celebration is now available from coast-to-coast on a seasonal basis. From late November through the month of January you can most assuredly find this beer on store shelves. The annual release of Celebration Ale is a reason for ‘ahem’ celebration by beer geeks far and wide. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself there!

This time of year you would expect seasonal releases to be somewhat holiday-oriented, with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and coriander. There are several great examples of this approach – including Anchor Christmas Ale and Sam Adams Winter Lager. Sierra Nevada’s take on the holiday seasonal, however, is slightly different.

Celebration Ale is an unabashed American IPA. It is the quintessential “west coast” IPA, showcasing citrus and piney hops against a backbone of caramel malt. What makes Celebration a true seasonal is the fact that it’s brewed with the freshest hops available following each fall’s harvest. The quick turnaround from the hop fields to the brew kettle provides for a sensory experience that is different than the typical year-round IPA. The aroma is brighter, the taste is fuller. This IPA has more “oomph” than most you’ll find on the market. I was giddy when I heard Celebration was hitting Northwest Arkansas shelves after a 10-month absence.

Brian Sorensen

I bought a case of Celebration from a local beer store for around $40 after tax. It’s not the cheapest beer in the world, but it is perhaps one of the most fulfilling. The beer is packaged in the standard squatty brown bottles in which you’ll find all Sierra Nevada brews. Celebration’s label is festive and cheery, with a snow-capped log cabin sitting amongst a collection of evergreen trees. The beer is branded as “fresh hop ale” with the year highlighted on the neck label. Beer geeks love to compare years, just as wine connoisseurs are known to do.

I pulled a bottle from the case and poured it into a pint glass. The most striking thing about the pour was the massive head. Most beers can be emptied on first pass, but Celebration was too much for the glass to handle. I waited a few moments for the head to subside – though it did so only slightly – and then poured the rest into the glass. The head was a thick white pillow of foam, almost like a cloud. Redder than most IPAs, the color was bright and the beer was clear. Ample carbonation was present in the form of tiny bubbles. I swirled the glass to release the aroma and cupped it to my nose. The smell was intensely hoppy, but sweet and bright at the same time. Citrus and pine dominated, just as it would later on the tongue.

When swallowed, the beer was highlighted by grapefruit pith, piney resin, and the aforementioned caramel backbone. It finished slightly sweeter than it was dry (though not too sweet – a good balance). At 6.8% ABV, the alcohol was well-hidden. Some would argue that a 6.8% beer is too big to be sessionable, but the balance demonstrated by Celebration makes it so enjoyable that one is not enough. Two or three seems to be just right on most nights.

Overall, Celebration Ale is one of my all-time favorites and never disappoints. You have to be a fan of bitter, hoppy beers to enjoy this one, but it’s not over the top. The balance in this beer is outstanding, with crystal malts providing a sweet caramel foundation for the citrusy hops that define the beer.

In a season dominated by spicy holiday brews, Celebration Ale truly stands out. I highly recommend picking up a case or two before it disappears from local shelves. It’s a long time until next November, and you don’t want your taste buds to go that long before experiencing this outstanding beer.

Brian Sorensen
Brian is an admitted beer geek, occasional home brewer, and member of the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds (FLOPS). You can follow him on Twitter at @EBSorensen.