As legendary brewmaster Steve Dresler heads into retirement after 34 years at Sierra Nevada, now is as good a time as any to take a fresh look at a beer that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves.
We’re talking about the Sierra Nevada pale ale and in many ways it’s a window into the way Dresler went about his work and the brewery grew into its greatness. When the pale ale came out and people began trying it in the early 1980s, it was a shocking amalgamation of hop flavor and aroma and, yes, a hefty punch of bitterness that signaled that the craft beer revolution had begun.
This pale ale was not Dresler’s creation – it’s the work of Sierra Nevada co-founder Ken Grossman – but Dresler has guided it to iconic status since he took the helm as brewer in Chico.
This is one of those beers that long ago redefined how we thought beer was supposed to taste. It inspired. It challenged. It grew on us. And if you, the enlightened beer geek of 2017, think of it as ho-hum or underwhelming, you’re failing to grasp just how much this one beer helped reconfigure the American craft beer palate.
Dresler calls the pale ale “the most legendary beer in craft beer history.” But don’t just take his word for it.
“To this day, I always have a six pack of Sierra Nevada pale ale in my fridge. It’s still one of my all time favorite beers,” said Vinne Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa and widely considered one of the world’s great brewers. “Back then, Sierra Nevada pale ale was cutting edge. It was really hoppy.”
Next month, Dresler, 60, will wrap up his career at Sierra Nevada. It was simply time, he decided, to move on, take it easy for awhile and the consider his options.
His first job in 1983 was not a fateful occasion. Dresler, who was a double science major in college, had no inkling he was getting in on the ground floor of a revolution in brewing. Fresh from getting laid off by a fabricating company, the long-haired Dresler heard about jobs at the brewery and soon found himself loading bottles into boxes. He was paid $4 an hour under the table.
“I got an opportunity to brew in April of 1983,” said Dresler, who had dabbled in rudimentary home brewing. “We started getting a little busy. We were going to brew on Saturdays. For me personally, that was a big step. It was a very small company, but the people were fascinating. You kind of got caught up in the fun and excitement of it.”
Sierra Nevada went into overdrive and the growth continued for years. The brewery relocated, expanded, hired more employees, and soon it was brewing 24 hours a day to meet demand. Dresler was always a hands-on brewer and liked it that way.
The heyday of growth and creativity in Chico was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The brewery moved to its current location, and with the opening of the pub in 1990, Dresler began creating new beers to go along with the flagship beers – pale ale, porter, stout, Celebration IPA, Bigfoot barleywine.
Dresler was the first brewer in the U.S. to brew a so-called wet hop beer – using fresh, green hops that had not been kiln dried – and the resulting Harvest Ale has been a big hit for 20 years. These days, wet hop beers are an early autumn staple at many breweries. He made an English style brown ale that won raves. He oversaw the development of the exquisite Ovila series, featuring trappist style beers made in collaboration with the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, 20 miles north of Chico.
Its latest Sierra Nevada Beer Camp 12-pack release, featuring six collaborations with domestic craft breweries and six foreign breweries, is major news among beer aficionados. Brewery tours at the Chico brewery remain a big deal. And while the brewery continues to develop new beers in various styles, its pale ale remains an important benchmark for new and veteran tasters alike.
“He gets so much respect because he was there early, early on. He was doing everything,” said Hoey, who worked as a brewer at Sierra Nevada in 2000-01. “He came up in that brewery. He has the perspective of someone who has been in the trenches trying to make beer on converted dairy equipment. His perspective and his experience is unmatched in the industry.”
Hoey says that a big part of Sierra Nevada’s leadership in the industry is with things that happen largely out of public view, like the brewery’s obsessive attention to detail, its emphasis on sourcing quality ingredients, and the kind of thorough laboratory test that ensures quality and consistency over time.
“Sierra Nevada was one of the early movers on that. They took it to an entirely new level,” Hoey said of lab testing and quality control.
Dresler was also an early proponent of hands-on sourcing. He visited the hop farms in the Northwest. He developed relationships with brokers. He pushed for the kind of quality that led to more innovation. These days, major hop brokers have research and development teams that create new and exciting proprietary hops like Citra, Simcoe and Mosaic and others used to brew some of the best IPAs going, including Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger at Russian River.
“A lot of that stuff we have is because people like Steve took the time to go to Yakima (Wash.) and talk to the growers and give them a foundation for what he wanted. That has trickled down to the rest of us,” said Cilurzo.
With rapid growth in sales came more responsibility for Dresler – more meetings and planning and paperwork. Like a great chef who no longer has time to cook, there came a point when this pioneering brewer and industry leader was not actually brewing.
“1996 had been a frenetic year. We had been brewing 24/7. By 1997, when we were putting a new brewhouse online, I somehow sensed that there would be no point in doing the brewing. I knew my career was going in a different direction.
“It became more and more imperative that I manage those operations rather than participate so much. I really struggled with that because that was my identity. I made beer. I didn’t manage beer.”
At the Chico brewery’s peak, Dresler was overseeing 45 employees, including three supervisors, all charged with brewing beer for one of the world’s great craft breweries. But he never shortchanged other brewers from small operations who called for advice and guidance.
“I’ve had one of the best jobs on the planet,” said Dresler. “As more and more breweries would open up, you become one of the senior people. Now I’ve been brewing longer than most of the brewers have been alive. As you become more tenured in the industry, people take notice that you’ve been successful and they come to ask questions. That dictates to me that you take the time to answer those questions.”
Just days from now, Dresler will walk away from the job and take an extended break before figuring out what he will do next. Will he teach? Be a consultant? Open his own little brewery somewhere? He’s still pondering all his options.
He has become a big fan of so many new breweries, especially those doing the kind of finessed, nuanced barrel-aged beers that were once so hard to come by. He knows all of the famous IPAs that have burst onto the scene. He’s interested in those hazy IPAs in the Northeast, too, and even partnered with one of the haze leaders, Tree House Brewing in Massachusetts, for the latest Beer Camp series.
He thinks hoppy beers should be balanced. When he says “more isn’t always better” and complains some new beers are simply too bitter, he sounds like a brewer who knows what he likes and likes what he knows.
If pressed to name the very best beer going in this Golden Age of craft beer, Dresler doesn’t budge from what he believed back when he was loading bottles into boxes, Ken Grossman paid him in cash and it was too soon to know that an upstart brewer in Chico was going to change our minds about how beer was supposed taste.