This Year's Version

Larry Koestler, November 18, 2014

Hey gang -- long time no see. You may remember me from such Beergraphs posts as "Last Year's Version" (that is in fact my only previous Beergraphs post), or being that IPA guy who is relentless about beer freshness.

Full disclosure: I am now on the business end of things since you last heard from me, as a co-owner of New York City's Third Rail Beer. If you're in the NYC area and haven't had our beers yet, stop reading this at once and go get yourself an Innate IPA (6.3%; Simcoe-drenched), Bodega American Pale Ale (5.6%; Citra-bursting) and/or a Field 2 (6.2%, classic Farmhouse ale). 

For those of you still here, I was inspired to come out of hibernation by Beergraphs' own Harris King in last week's Beer Chat. The conversation turned to Sierra Nevada's wonderful annual fall/winter tradition, the 33-year-old (!) fresh hop Celebration Ale. I had my first Celebration in 2010, and remember thinking it was outstanding, though I don't have a check-in for it, as I didn't join Untappd until April 2011. My ratings for Celebration 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 are all 4s.

This tells me that if nothing else, it's always been very good. However, despite the consistency in numeric rating, my feelings on the beer have evolved -- I remember feeling rather "meh" about it a couple of years ago, and finding myself really enjoying it again this year. Here's what I wrote last Friday:

"I too have found myself having different reactions to Celebration over the last few years, though I suspect it has more to do with some sort of combination of (a) a continually changing palate, (b) the other stuff I was drinking at the time and what I have access to in general, and (c) where I had it in its lifecycle, than the actual recipe. Last year at this time I was awash in Zombie Dust and not paying much attention to Celebration; this year I've been struggling to find most of my standby IPAs fresh over the past few weeks and so reuniting with Celebration has been like rediscovering a long-lost friendship. It also doesn't hurt that it's pretty damn great. As an aside, Sierra and a lot of the bigger players seem to get unfairly punished, for lack of a better word, when it comes to excitement, hype and general appreciation for their beers. I certainly understanding rooting for the small guy, but as a beer fan it's easy to take for granted that no matter where you are, you can rely on Celebration to be available to you every single November without having to wait for it or pay through the nose for it."
Harris asked me to flesh these thoughts out further, and so here we are.
Continually changing palate
This is fairly self-explanatory/obvious, but worth keeping in mind when it comes to a beer like Celebration. Now I can't state for certain that the recipe for Celebration has never changed once in its 33-year existence -- and the method of its production has evolved given Sierra's Hop Torpedo and ongoing dedication to advanced brewing research -- but being that its hop bill is Cascade, Centennial and Chinook, the general hop aroma/flavor profile likely hasn't changed that dramatically over the years. This is a long-winded way of saying that just because you think Celebration "isn't as good this year" or "tastes better than ever," it's probably your mind playing tricks on you. 
I know in my case, the dominant flavor that I seek out when buying beers changes frequently -- a natural result of discovering more and more styles and interpretations. And so it makes sense that one might think of Celebration as being something less than you previously perceived it, following continued exposure to increasingly hoppy beers.
The other stuff I was drinking at the time and what I have access to in general
This is a key component of why I came back around to Celebration this year. Last year I completed a trade for a case of Zombie Dust at the exact same time I had a sixer of Celebration on my fridge. Zombie Dust is one of my favorite beers on the planet and something I've committed a lot of time and effort to obtain by the case over the years. The sixer of Celebration didn't stand a chance.
However, after a solid two-year run of beer trading, I got burnt out on it (and the expense) earlier this year, recognizing that there is usually enough great stuff readily available to me on the shelves that doesn't require me to invest in a case of bubble wrap and the equivalent of monthly dues at UPS. 
That said, being the freshness zealot that I am, the great stuff readily available to me isn't necessarily always readily available to me anytime I want. To wit, Sculpin is probably my favorite beer. At the very least, it's absolutely my favorite relatively mass-produced beer that I can buy in my local store.
However, with Sculpin's well-known deterioration following the 30-day-old mark, my window of Sculpin-buying is a small one -- we usually get fresh (~2-week-old) Sculpin once every three months. As such, to fill in the gaps when I can't get fresh Sculpin, I've remembered to shift my attention toward something like Celebration, which, in this year's case, wound up being a great reminder of why I loved the beer in the first place.
Where I had it in its lifecycle
And continuing on the freshness theme (because it always comes back to freshness) I first saw Celebration during the last week of October, in bottles dated September 26. While I generally refuse to buy an IPA past 30 days thanks to Sculpin (there are some notable exceptions -- Deschutes' Fresh-Squeezed is the rare IPA that still tastes great almost 90 days from bottling, which I find both delightful and baffling; I've also found that you can usually safely buy Ruination within Stone's recommended 90-day timeframe, though I'd still stick to under 60 days whenever possible), ~35 days from bottling for Celebration didn't seem disastrous, and lo and behold, it was just fine. I also noticed that fresher Celebration has been showing up on shelves as well of late, and so it's nice to see Sierra seems to have ironed out some of the supply chain issues it had earlier in the year (every bottle in the Beer Camp box this summer had been bottled nearly two months prior when it finally hit shelves).
Of course, none of this really matters when we have data:
As always, things get a little tricky with vintages on Untappd, as some people will check in to the main entry and others will check into the year. There are also going to be variations in the aggregate data as Untappd's user base has grown. 
Still, on the whole, Celebration is pretty darn consistent, particularly when adjusted for style in the three years Beergraphs has data on. Interestingly, this year's version is outperforming all others thus far, so who knows -- maybe they did tweak the recipe a tad to acknowledge the insatiable lupulin lust of the hophead masses. Although that score will likely decline as more checkins are amassed and the beer moves further and further away from its ideal freshness.
Larry Koestler is an occasional contributor to Beergraphs, obsessed with craft beer, and co-owner of New York City-based brewery Third Rail Beer. You can follow Third Rail on Twitterlike the brewery on Facebook, follow it on Instagramcheck in on Untappd, or go to the official website for more information.
Thanks to HasslerPhotos for the header.