Summer 2020 Hop Art

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Goes Retro

2020 marks 40 years since Ken Grossman changed craft beer forever by brewing the first batch of the iconic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In honor of this milestone, Grossman and his team decided to do a bit of a throwback this summer and bring back the original 1980 label artwork.

“We’ve talked about a retro label before, but the time just didn’t seem right until now,” says Sierra Nevada’s Robin Gregory. Inspired by an old tourism advertisement in National Geographic, artist (as well as Grossman’s friend and fellow homebrewer) Chuck Bennett created the original Pale Ale label. Everyone at the brewery agreed it was a winner. “We had the labels designed just as we liked them,” recalls Gregory. But with limited resources and a barebones staff, Grossman and his team weren’t able to send someone to the press check at the printer.

“When we received the labels, the color was way off – it had a funky, rainbow-like look that we hadn’t anticipated.” But sending the botched labels back to the printer and demanding a refund wasn’t exactly Grossman’s style (plus, at the time he was too broke to pay for another run at a different printer). So, he decided the happy accident would do just fine – and the rest is history.

Often referred to as “your favorite brewer’s favorite beer,” Pale Ale went heavy on hops far before that was the norm in craft beer. Loaded with Cascade, a new hop at the time, the intense aromas of pine and citrus sparked the American craft beer revolution.

Not only that, the Pale Ale label became something of a signature that Chuck Bennett riffed on for Sierra Nevada’s next batch of beers. “Chuck created the original Porter and Stout labels too, which formed the masthead and template for many of our labels going forward,” says Gregory. “The landscape vista and banner became a Sierra Nevada signature. It wasn’t exactly intentional, but it became a beloved part of our look.”

In 40 years, updates to the Pale Ale labels were made to keep it fresh, “but the spirit has always remained the same.” The current redesign is the result of hundreds of hand-drawn renderings created by Sierra Nevada’s in-house team – a far cry from the loose sketches Grossman and Bennett dreamed up over beers four decades before. Even with a printing error, the Pale Ale labels are now part of craft brewing history. “Looking back 40 years later, we wouldn’t change a thing.” After all, it’s the beer behind the label that matters.

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Draught Lines is a seasonal magazine dedicated to the craft beer experience.