Beer aficionados can thank an unexpected decline in sales in 2015 for the recent release of Sierra Nevada’s booziest brew ever. That was the year that founder Ken Grossman and his team found themselves looking at a glut of their award-winning Bigfoot Barleywine-Style Ale that, for some inexplicable reason, did not hit their sales expectations. Rather than dump their excess product, they instead decided to rack it into wooden barrels and let it mature at their Chico, California, facility to see what changes might happen to an already flavor-packed brew.
“If there is one thing that I have learned during my twenty-eight years at Sierra Nevada is that Ken is not one to dump good beer down the drain,” says Terence Sullivan, the brand manager and brewery ambassador for Sierra Nevada. “So, we filled over 100 barrels with our unsold Bigfoot and parked them off to the side, coming back each year to sample them. I knew after four years something special was happening, but we didn’t know what to do with it.”
That problem was solved in early 2021 when the team at Buffalo Trace Distillery reached out, wanting to know if Sierra Nevada might be interested in creating a collaboration beer. They wanted to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Bottle and Bond Act. This legislation effectively established the modern parameters for bourbon. As one of the oldest continually operating distilleries in the United States, they found symmetry in partnering with one of the oldest craft brewers in the country.
The opportunity to create something so outside their regular portfolio of pale ales and IPAs, with such an unlikely partner, led Sierra, a company not known for collaborations, to take a chance.
They decided to transfer their aging Bigfoot into previously used Colonel E. H. Taylor bourbon barrels shipped to their brewery. Taylor is a small-batch bourbon that pays tribute to one of the founders of Buffalo Trace, that helped also helped pass the Bottled-in-Bond Act. A multiple award-winning spirit, it would help transform the profile of the Bigfoot over its last year of aging. It also would mark the first-ever beer collaboration for the bourbon.
After ensuring it kept the market supplied with its mainline beers during the pandemic, Sierra Nevada decided that its first new release in several years would have a proper coming-out party. At the recently concluded Great American Beer Festival, the first one conducted with attendees in two years, they started pouring it. Each night at 7:30, they hosted a special tasting that quickly became one of the event’s highlights, with long lines of drinkers queuing to get a sip.
“It was fantastic to be back at the GABF and to watch the faces of our fans as they tasted this beer,” says Sullivan. “It was such an unexpected beer from us, catching many people off guard. Each day the crowds came for more.”
A boozy 15% ABV, it is loaded with caramel, molasses, and sugar flavors balanced by a healthy hop hit and a backstop of bourbon. The beer will quickly be gone since only 15,000 bottles were produced. Each 750 ml bottle comes in a bourbon-style container with a vintage-style label and is available for $25. While they have already sold out online, they are available at select retailers.
Hopefully, the success of this beer will lead to Sierra Nevada and E.H. Taylor teaming up again, especially if Grossman has any other stashes of unsold beer.