Sierra Nevada’s Hop Trek to Start the Celebration

The season can’t begin without Celebration—but first, there’s a journey to pick the right hops and rush them back to the brew kettles.

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When does fall feel official? Maybe it’s that first sweatshirt, or the first woodstove fire.

Also, there’s just something about that first Celebration IPA. Its citrus, pine, and malty caramel notes help usher in the season.

And it’s a milestone year for this Sierra Nevada favorite: 40 years of fresh hops. Celebration’s premiere in 1981 blazed a path for “holiday beer” to stand pure—all hops, no spice.

The recipe hinges on racing hops from the field and into the kettle—but what are the actual logistics? How fresh is fresh?

Tom Nielsen, R&D and raw materials manager for Sierra Nevada, says there is a dedicated hop-selection trip for Celebration. He and a sensory team that includes brewery founder Ken Grossman focus only on Centennial and Cascade varieties.

After having to do the 2020 Celebration selections remotely during the pandemic—all by mail, with at least 20 hop samples overnighted to the brewery—Sierra Nevada went all-in for their visit in September 2021.

“I tripled our efforts this year,” Nielsen says. “We need to make up for a year, and we’re not going to just double our efforts. So we had probably the most intense trip to the Pacific Northwest for Celebration that we’ve ever had. And it was great.”

The three-day marathon started in Washington. The team flew to Seattle on September 1, climbed into a van, and drove southeast to the Yakima Valley.

“The Yakima Valley is divided into three sections,” Nielsen explains. “In the north you have Moxee, which is the highest-density hop-growing area in the world.”

And Moxee, he says, is the Centennial jackpot for Celebration. That first day, the Sierra Nevada team visited three different farms, sampling Centennials in all stages of production—on the staging floor, in the drying kiln, and sealed in 200-pound bales.

“Then maybe a third of [all Centennials] are still being picked that day, or will be picked tomorrow and the next day,” Nielsen says.

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That means the Sierra Nevada team is also in the fields, rubbing hops on the bine to analyze their aroma potential in real-time. Pivotal changes can take mere hours.

“Centennial is the best example of a variety that goes from having very little aroma, to a small window of like-perfect aroma, to onion and garlic—straight up, over the top.”

That perfect Centennial aroma, he says, is a pronounced rose note. That first day, Sierra Nevada found two ideal lots. However, the third lot needed its beauty sleep.

“We went right back to one of these farms just to see how the next 12 hours of production was,” Nielsen says, “because we weren’t actually 100 percent satisfied that first day. So we went back the following morning at like 8 a.m. and actually found something that was pretty spectacular.”

From there, the Sierra Nevada team drove farther south to check out three more Washington farms. Therew ere some compelling hops, but no clear winners.

Nearly through Day Two, it was time to change gears.

“It’s the Cascade that can really break Celebration,” Nielsen says, so the 4.5-hour drive into north-central Oregon brimmed with anticipation.

Over the years (that is, decades), Sierra Nevada has found that Cascade hops tend to peak—that precious balance of citrus and pine—just a few days earlier in Oregon. With the inflexible brewing timeline of Celebration, that head start matters.

“If there’s one of these years where it’s just cool [weather] and nothing ever develops,” Nielsen says, “you may not get a good Cascade until the 15th [of September], no matter what you do.”

Three Oregon farms later, on that critical third day, they had their prime Cascades. Now the clock starts ticking.

After that Labor Day weekend—when freight trucks largely halt—they hit the highway. Nielsen says they coordinate one refrigerated truck to the brewery in Chico, California, and another truck to the brewery in Mills River, North Carolina.

“So a truck will swing by a farm maybe in Moxee and grab all the Centennial,” he says, “then go to the second spot and grab the rest of the second variety, and then haul it to Chico.”

This is hefty cargo: about 140 bales per truck, or 28,000 pounds. The typical split is 90 bales of Cascade and 50 bales of Centennial.

The hops arrive the same day in Chico, while it takes two or three days to land on the East Coast. Each brewhouse is waiting, ready to make it official: Let the Celebration begin.

“So the oldest hops going into that first batch of Celebration are still just less than a week [from harvest],” Nielsen says, “and the youngest ones could be two days.”

Once it’s in tanks, is it hard to be patient?

“Absolutely. One hundred percent. There's no doubt,” he says. “All of us are just waiting for when it gets chilled.”

Someone, anyone, rallies the team once it’s time, about two weeks later. The zwickel opens, the samples flow, and then—only then—does autumn commence.

“It’s so drinkable,” Nielsen says. “A magical balance of hop intensity, sweet maltiness, and that Chico-yeast ester goodness.”

Find Celebration IPA, now in cans, at your local stores. Each festive-looking six-pack is a gift ready to be opened.

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