By Max Madler, The Craftavore
The Craftavore “Tastes” – A Review of Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across America Variety Pack Part I
Ever since the debut of “The Craftavore Tales” on Pints, Forks & Friends this past May, I’ve wanted to add a second column that focuses solely on reviewing new releases. While The Craftavore Tales is part history, part travel and part brewery review, this new column is built around one thing and one thing only – beer.
With that goal in mind, I dove into my trusty bag of literary gimmicks in search of a name for this new endeavor. And after much deliberation and painful second guessing, out popped “The Craftavore Tastes.”
I know what you’re thinking. A bit anticlimactic, a tad unoriginal, and to some degree, downright underwhelming. I hear you. But here’s the thing. The name just fits. I like it. And I hope you like it too, or at least grow to like it over time.
With that said, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t debut the first Craftavore Tastes with a little twist. And while I’m keeping to my promise of making this column all about beer, I couldn’t help but think of my childhood summer camp when my local beer guy sent me a text in mid-July that read, “Sierra Nevada Beer Camp 12-pack now in stock.” (Yup, I have a beer guy who texts me. Don’t you?)
And it’s not just because of the word “camp.” The ethos of Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across America, which is centered around collaboration and celebration, happens to be the same spirit of which my childhood summer camp, Hackley Day Camp in Tarrytown, NY, was built.
The off-shoot camp of the Hackley School, a private preparatory school whose alumni include Chris Berman and Keith Olbermann, Hackley Day Camp was anything but the strict traditionalism that the term “private preparatory school” often connotes. First off, it was coed, which probably ended up being the single most important selling point of the place once puberty came knocking. Secondly, all campers were placed into groups all named after Native American tribes. Now, in 2014, this innocent naming convention would certainly be admonished for being politically incorrect, or, worse, racially insensitive. But in the late 1980’s, being called a Cayuga, Senaca or Iroquois for the summer was considered by all a badge of honor and a tribute to the Native people of New York State.
Because once you were assigned to a tribe, those 12 campers that made up your tribe became inseparable. You ate together, you swam together, you played field, archery, and box ball together. Every activity was a collaborative effort and a celebration of unity as the overall goal of each tribe was to earn to the most collective “bulls-eye pins.” The pins were then counted at the end of the summer and the tribe with the most was declared the winning tribe of the camp.
Therefore, in honor of the end of summer, I’ve decided to take you back in time to Hackley Day Camp circa 1988 and review each of the beers in Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Variety 12 pack in a timeline fashion that represents a typical day at my summer camp. And, yes, each beer will be judged by a number of “bulls-eye pins” with 1 being the worst to 5 being the best.
Given the size of the review, I’ve decided to break it up into two parts for easier readability.
So, get your summer camp shirt on and make sure your sneakers are laced up tight, because the camp bus is right outside your door honking its horn and the driver, Mrs. McNaughton, doesn’t like it when you’re late.
Part 1 begins now.
7:00am – Arrival Time
Myron’s Walk (Belgian Style Pale Ale, 5.3% ABV) – Collaboration with Allagash Brewing Company – Portland, ME
Every single morning was the same, yet felt completely different. I’d arrive via Mrs. McNaughton’s yellow Chevy school bus and be dropped off in the same location where I’d await my fellow campers. Part park and part staging area, each tribe had its own location within the park where we’d congregate. You knew what to expect out of the day, but couldn’t help feel excitement about what the day would bring.
I feel the exact same way every time I open a beer from Allagash. Known for producing some of the best, if not the best, Belgian-Style beers in the country, I know exactly what I’m in store for every time I remove the cork, yet I still get gripped with anticipation every time.
As soon as I removed the cap from Myron’s Walk, the aromas of lemon zest, fruity citrus, white pepper and clove started permeating my nose. The beer poured a cloudy, light golden body with minimal head retention which looked gorgeous in my snifter. Flavor starts as lemon zest and white pepper and gradually shifts to coriander and clove with a slight hop bitterness as it hits the back of the tongue.
Overall, Myron’s Walk smells, feels and definitely tastes like an Allagash beer, albeit Allagash-lite. And what I mean by that is that it doesn’t feel nor taste like their best effort. It’s a perfectly fine representation of a Belgian-style Pale Ale, but it seems geared toward novices of the style. Which I suppose is fine for a variety pack that is nationally distributed, but once you realize it’s super hard to get and comes at pretty steep price point, you can’t help but expect a bit more.
Verdict – 3.5 Bulls Eye Pins
7:30am – Field
Electric Ray (Imperial Pale Lager, 8.5% ABV) – Collaboration with Ballast Point Brewing Company – San Diego, CA
The walk down to the field was about a mile or so, and the only thing I remember from these treks was the smell of fresh cut grass. Hackley’s campus was rather large, so there always seemed to be someone cutting a patch or field of grass at any given moment of the day. Whether we were scheduled to play kickball, softball or flag football, the only constant was the crisp feeling of the morning air before the sun really kicked into high gear and that floral scent of freshly cut grass.
So, with those two sensory memories as my inspiration, I dove into the pack and cracked open Electric Ray. The aroma is all grapefruit, citrus, pine and grass combined with hints of sweetness from both the malts and lager yeast. Hoppy and bright, Electric Ray has a powerful alcohol backbone which should come as no surprise given the 8.5% ABV. However, it finishes dry and it’s the crisp/clean lager characteristics that really dominate this beer’s profile.
While I firmly believe Jack’s Abby has all lager styles on lockdown here on the east coast, both Ballast Point and Sierra Nevada impressed me with Electric Ray. It felt like a true collaboration in the sense that some of the greatest attributes of both breweries were present in this beer. And while you’d think that should be a given for every offering considering the ethos behind Beer Camp, as you’ll soon find out in this review, it’s not.
With that said, Electric Ray is easily the second best beer in the pack and the only one that I could see turned into a year-round offering should Ballast Point choose to do so.
Verdict – 4.0 Bulls Eye Pins
9:30am – Milk & Cookies
Double Latte (Coffee Milk Stout, 7.6% ABV) – Collaboration with Ninkasi Brewing Company – Eugene, OR
Whether it was because they wanted to nourish us after an hour and a half of Field or because they simply wanted us to sit down and shut up, the whistle that was blown every day by our camp director at 10:30am signified milk & cookies time. Dispensed from an orange Gatorade jug with a white top into small 8oz Dixie cups, the milk was always super cold and served with two chocolate chip cookies.
With that memory in mind, I took the first sniff of Double Latte and was instantly hit with that familiar roasty, milky, lactose aroma all great milk stouts possess. Also present was a subtle hint of booze as Double Latte at 7.6% ABV is definitely one of the highest ABV milk stouts I’ve ever come across. The taste is all chocolate which works wonderfully with this beer’s silky mouthfeel.
Ninkasi should be extremely proud of this collab as Double Latte is easily the biggest standout of the pack. And while that’s definitely something to hold your hat on, I think the real win is the halo effect they’ll receive for their other offerings by craft beer fans that may not have easy access to their distro. I’m certainly familiar with them, but I’ve never been able to have any of their beers since I live on the east coast. And because of that limited exposure, I had no reason to seek them out. Double Latte changes that perception and I’ll now add them to my list of trade wants.
Verdict – 4.5 Bulls Eye Pins
11:30am – Lunch
Tater Ridge (Scottish Ale, 7.0% ABV) – Collaboration with the Asheville Brewers Alliance – Asheville, NC
I can still see the clear drinking cups (juice and water only) and flesh colored trays. Maybe it’s because I was 10 years old, but I could swear the food served at lunch every day would make even Daniel Boulud blush. In reality, it probably was a mix of poorly prepared hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken fingers. But you know what? I loved it. And I looked forward to it every day.
My favorite part of the lunch line was two-fold:
The first was interacting with the lunch ladies, think Red from Orange Is the New Black minus the Russian accent and horrific dye job, who did their best to smile and seem upbeat even though they were serving an unruly bunch of 8 to 13 year-olds.
The second was the bottomless trough of french fries at the end of the line that every camper filled a separate bowl to the brim with every…single…day.
While dreaming of elderly ladies wearing hairnets and those splendid, fried spuds, Tater Ridge was the obvious choice to dig into. Full disclosure – I’m a HUGE Scottish ale fan. Founders Backwoods Bastard is one of my favorite beers of all-time and, while that beer is barrel-aged, it’s more about the deep copper color, rich malty mouthfeel and smoky aromas found in all great Scottish ales that excites me most.
Tater Ridge pours just as it should. Copper brown with even a slight hint of deep ruby red and a nice tan head that hangs around just long enough. Flavors like caramel, toffee and roasted grains light up your mouth as you take a sip and there’s even some bitter citrus in the finish which doesn’t exactly fit if you’re familiar with the style. A nice addition, however, is the slight smokiness you’re left with in between sips. And while the smokiness is a sure fire win for me, I keep looking for a bit more definitive sweet potato flavor that never quite arrives. What does come back time and time again like an unwanted neighbor is a bitterness that simply doesn’t work. The body is also a bit thin and disappointing.
Verdict – 3.5 Bulls Eye Pins
1:00pm – Movie time in the King Chapel
Chico King (Pale Ale, 6.5% ABV) – Collaboration with Three Floyd’s Brewing Co. – Munster, IN
Every single day after lunch, all of us campers piled into Hackley’s on-campus chapel which more resembled a full-sized church than a chapel for an hour’s worth of movie time. A large screen was placed in front of the altar and, instead of a priest giving his sermon, we got Mr. Miyagi pontificating about the virtues of wax on and wax off and Inigo Montoya prepping us to die for killing his father. Not sure why the Karate Kid and The Princess Bride stick out in my mind, however, given the fact that we’d only watch for an hour a day, movies sometimes took 2-3 days to complete, even longer if we started on a Friday. So, maybe that’s why. Or maybe I’ve just always wanted to crane kick Johnny Lawrence in the face ever since 1984.
What does this have to do with Chico King? Absolutely nothing. Although, Willoughby Gray played the elderly and kind king in The Princess Bride, so let’s go with that.
Out of all of the beers in the variety pack, I was most interested in Chico King. Hoping that the name would suggest an awesome mash-up of Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and Three Floyd’s Alpha King, my dreams were dashed the moment I took a sip. Chico King paled in comparison to either of those beers and was overly malty in an off-putting way.
I’m assuming aging was the main culprit here as there was little to no hoppiness that is a trademark of both Three Floyd’s and Sierra Nevada offerings.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t wait to move on to the next beer in the pack and put Chico King in a body bag.
Verdict – 3.0 Bulls Eye Pins
2:00pm – Science & Nature
Yonder Bock (Tropical Maibock, 7.7% ABV) – Collaboration with Cigar City Brewing – Tampa, FL
I’m pretty sure Science & Nature, which was literally a science class in one of Hackley’s classrooms, was placed on the daily schedule after lunch and movie time just to ensure we properly digested all those fries before jumping back into some type of physical activity. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “A science class? In camp? That sucks.” Yes, it sucked. Big time.
We learned about flora and fauna from all over the globe and the class was taught by a middle aged woman who taught at Hackley during the school year and moonlighted at the camp during the summer. I cannot for the life of me remember her name, however, what I do remember was her fascination with the Amazon rain forest.
So, in honor of this nameless teacher’s love of the Amazon, I popped open the can of Yonder Bock hoping the tropical notes would help spark my memory.
Unfortunately, the beer neither sparked my memory or my palate. I’ve visited Cigar City twice in the last 5 years and I consider them to be one of my favorite breweries in the country. I find their Jai Alai IPA and Humidor Series IPA, which is aged on Spanish cedar wood, to be world-class. I don’t even need to mention the awesomeness that is Hunapu’s, though I guess I just did.
Anyway, I couldn’t help but be a bit shocked that they chose to brew a German maibock as that style is definitely not in their wheelhouse. And while I applaud the risk, I cannot help but feel they would’ve been better served brewing an awesome, citrusy IPA.
The best part of Yonder Bock is probably its appearance. The color is a gorgeous copper with an off-white tan head that hangs around for a bit. Taste is malty upfront with an abundance of caramel or toffee sweetness. The body is oily and smooth, however, I cannot get over the fact that I keep looking for some tropical hops notes which sadly never come.
Verdict – 3.0 Bulls Eye Pins
Well, campers, Part I has come to an end. I hope you’ve enjoyed the day so far. And fear not, we still have Archery, Swim, Pottery, Box Ball, Pow wow and the Drive Home coming up in Part II where I’ll review:
- Yvan the Great – collaboration with Russian River Brewing Company
- CanFusion – collaboration with Oskar Blues Brewery
- There and Back – collaboration with New Glarus Brewing Company
- Alt Route – collaboration with Victory Brewing Company
- Maillard’s Odyssey – collaboration with Bell’s Brewery
- Torpedo Pilsner – collaboration with Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
By Max Madler
The Craftavore is Max Madler, writer, marketing professional , and lover off all things craft, especially beer.
Born and raised in Irvington, NY, namesake of the famous American author Washington Irving, Max is also an avid homebrewer, cook, and aspiring electric guitar player.
Twitter – @Craftavore