New Years Eve: Celebrations Through The Years

Well, with the year coming to a close and everyone posting about the special beers they popped on New Years, I figured I'd throw my hat into the ring. While I didn't have anything insanely rare (well, there was that bottle of Utopias that was going around), I did bring out a few bottles of Sierra Nevada Celebration that I had been saving each year since 2008. I've had vintage Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barleywine before, but I wanted to try their other famous seasonal with some age on it, and I was a bit surprised by what I found.

2008 Celebration
Grade: B

Pours a nice hazy orange with some amber highlights, and a slightly thin head that dissipates relatively quickly. The citrus hops in the nose is still extremely potent, which is surprising after so long in the bottle. There's some malty sweetness in the aroma as well, almost candy-like. The body is medium to medium-light, with a crisp level of carbonation that scrubs the tongue. Hops are still in the front of the flavor, but now there are other things trying to compete. There are some raisin, prune, and other dark fruit flavors coming in to play, and a bit of the wet-cardboard you get with older beers. Some of these flavors certainly are the effects of oxidation and age, like some of the molasses and brown sugar left in the aftertaste. However I don't feel like these elements detract from the beer, in fact I think it lends a great new dimension to a beer that's widely known and loved. If you're trying to get someone into the world of aged beers, I think this one is a good first step.

2009 Celebration
Grade: B-

The 2009 pours the same hazy orange/amber, but this time the head is more creamy and sticks around longer. The well-known citrus of the hops comes through as expected in the aroma, except that there is a great toasty malt presence too. I can get more variety in the hop nose as well, more grassy, piney hops that weren't in the 2008. The mouthfeel is medium and crisp, but the flavor has an immediate off note to it. It tastes a bit like burnt rubber, a bit acrid. The hops are much more forward in the flavor here, as well as in bitterness. But I think it's from that hop bitterness that I'm getting that off/burnt flavor from. The malts are more clean and crisp here, with toasty bready flavors that work to balance the hops. The dark fruit flavors from the 2008 aren't really here, except for faint notes of raisins in the aftertaste. Overall? I'm not sold on this one. It isn't quite the unique beer that the 2008 is, and it's not the fresh beer that the 2010 is. Looks like this beer needs to be either two years old or two weeks old.

2010 Celebration
Grade: A

A creamy, rocky head leaps up from this relatively clear, light amber beer. I'm not surprised to see that the color is lighter than the older beers, due to them being oxidized over time. However what I am surprised by is the clarity of this years offering. Unlike the previous two, 2010 is much less hazy and allows much more light through it. It isn't brilliantly clear by any means, but this beer makes the other two look murky by comparison. Intense, green hop aroma explode from the glass. Citrus, grapefruit, peach, pineapple, and a little grassy pine comprise the nose. The mouthfeel is fuller than the 2009, with slightly less carbonation and a creamier feel. Hops are front and center in the flavor as well, but these are different hops than the 2009, or at least they're much fresher. The fruity aromas of the hops are echoed in the flavor, rounding out a bitterness that seems much more dialed down than that of the 2009. The malts are simple, but effective here. They maintain just enough sweetness to counter the hops, but by no means impede them. This beer is why so many beer-geeks clamor for this ale year after year.

Maybe there's a bell curve with aging this beer. It's good when it's fresh, it's not so good after a year, and then after two years it's good again. It's possible. Another explanation (the one that I'm leaning towards) is that Sierra Nevada tweaks their recipe each year. Hops after all are an agricultural ingredient, different from crop to crop. Those differences would account for the flavor changes that seem to have occurred through the years. I went into this tasting thinking that I would simply be trying the same beer, with differing amounts of age on them. What I discovered is that, like a wine-grape vintage, each year the beer is unique. The brewer is tasked with making the best beer possible with the ingredients available to them. But just because a beer carries the same label year to year, doesn't mean the beer inside the bottle is a clone of the year previous.


Beer Rover said...

This is the first year I noticed Fresh Hop on the Celebration label. I didn't know this beer aged, I never had the will-power to store a few bottles. Seriously, surprised it aged as I always viewed this beer as an IPA, or as close as Sierra Nevada got to one before the release of Torpedo. This year's version of Celebration was exceptional.