The following article and recipe are by AHA member Chris P. Frey. Nearly Nirvana Pale Ale is the official Big Brew 2023 homebrew recipe. Access a downloadable and printable bottle label made exclusively for the Big Brew celebration on May 6, 2023. A printable, one-page version of this recipe is also available.
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Big Brew 2023: Old school rules!
We homebrewers are a promiscuous lot, pushing boundaries and trying new fermentations that are adventurous, unique, and sometimes even wacky. We scan the aisles for inspiration and come up with unique beverages. Some of us never attempt to brew the same recipe twice, and that’s OK.
When I started brewing almost 30 years ago, a friend suggested that I should clone a beer I loved several times until I could repeat it faithfully. This began my initial quest to clone Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale (SNPA), which in turn begot my Nearly Nirvana Pale Ale (NNPA.)
More than 40 years ago, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. set out to create a new American style, the American pale ale. Once considered crazy hoppy, it fortunately wasn’t too far ahead of its time. Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., states that “after 42 years Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (SNPA) still resonates as a favorite with brewers and drinkers at all levels. Pale Ale started out in 1980 as an anomaly in a world dominated by light lagers with a hop-forward yet balanced style. After all these years it still holds its own in a world now accustomed to a nearly limitless range of hop-forward styles, many that can trace their roots back to the original Sierra Pale Ale.”
In 2000, a call went out to AHA members for an SNPA homebrew recipe and my Nearly Nirvana Pale Ale (NNPA) was shared with the community for that year’s Big Brew recipe. So why bring back this one for Big Brew 2023? Read on and learn…
Oscar Wilde once said that “consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative.” I counter this philosophy and believe that to master brewing, one must start with a thorough understanding of one’s processes, systems, and ingredients, as well as one’s own limitations to achieve the desired outcomes.
I have brewed my NNPA more than 90 times because my friends and I love it. With my multiple iterations, I began a journey of discovery, tweaking the recipe one variable at a time to understand the impact. Change a mash temperature here, base or specialty grain there, water-to-grain ratio, yeast strain or amount, fermentation temperatures, and so on. By keeping all but one variable the same, I was able to truly understand its impact.
Along with NNPA’s deliciousness, its beauty lies in its simplicity. My current iteration of NNPA is a tad more malt and hop forward than SNPA, and just a skosh bigger. The recipe has been tweaked many times over the years, but my current iteration is, to me, Goldilocks—just right.
The Homebrew Recipe
Two grains, one hop varietal, and single infusion: easy peasy! Start with fresh American pale malt, add a touch of crystal 40, and mash in at around 156–158°F (69–70°C) to obtain that malt balance. Add an ounce of Cascade whole hops (hey, we are talking old school here) at 75, 60, 15, and 5 minutes before the end of the boil. Add your favorite American ale yeast strain. After a couple of weeks, enjoy. Something not up to what you seek? Examine your process, ingredients, and system and try again, tweaking one variable at a time.
I state that one needs 11.5 pounds of grain for a 5-gallon batch to achieve an original gravity of 1.060. This is, of course, based on one’s system efficiency. Mine gets 72 percent. This is another teachable point about knowing your system. Do you consistently add 1.25 quarts per of grain? Or perhaps 1.5? I prefer closer to 1.5 and only use less water per pound of grains when trying to stuff a large amount of grain into my mash for a barleywine, Belgian tripel, or other high-gravity beer. Your mileage may vary.
Similarly, I suggest 4 ounces of whole Cascade hops at various times for this recipe. The most recent cones I obtained were 5.5% alpha acids, but I have seen Cascade pellets with more than 8%. I am targeting mid-40 IBUs, with the bulk of these in the bittering additions. I also suggest boiling for 75 minutes with additions at 75 and 60 minutes. Time is never an issue when I brew, but there is no reason you couldn’t add them together at 60 minutes. And if you want to lower the bitterness, just add one ounce at 60 minutes and skip the 75-minute addition. When I started brewing, well, sonny, we didn’t know about whirlpool hops (old fogy mode off), so feel free to add that last ounce of hops to your whirlpool if you like.
The point is if you are going to try a recipe multiple times, be consistent with your process. Stick to your standard operating procedure before you go changing anything; after you have developed it into something repeatable and it has virtually become muscle memory, you can tweak it as you like. Hey, you are taking careful notes, aren’t you?
Water is an intimidating subject, and several excellent water calculators are available. If you don’t have an analysis of your water supply, suggesting water additions is somewhat meaningless. Early on someone suggested adding a teaspoon of gypsum (calcium sulfate) to the boil for 5 gallons of hoppy pale ale. This dries the finish, accentuates the bitterness, and tamps down harshness and other benefits, so I do this at a minimum, but my water sources have typically been very soft.
I have used a variety of American and English ale yeasts over the years, but I find a neutral American ale yeast works best—for me. I have brewed split batches to try two or three different yeast strains to understand their differences. Splitting a batch is easy and ensures all other variables are consistent.
If you are like many adventurous homebrewers who veer toward the untried, the unique, the one-off, I applaud your daring, your audacity, and your courage. If you brew without a fully formed recipe in your mind and just wing it, ask yourself if you could brew this masterpiece again if you wanted to. Or have you had your share of messterpieces?
I urge you to consider selecting an easy recipe for a beer style you love. By selecting a proven craft beer that you spend your hard-earned shekels on, or a homebrew recipe that you love, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor while you tinker and learn. Find your recipe, nail it down, and then play with a single variable. You then become viscerally aware of the impact that one variable makes. We can read all we like about ingredients and processes, but by experiencing the entirety of the aromas, flavors, and other dynamics of your finished brew that a single change makes, you are on the road to becoming a better brewer.
This article and recipe is also published in the March/April 2023 issue of Zymurgy magazine.
- 11 lb. (4.99 kg) Rahr 2-row malt
- 8 oz. (227 g) Simpsons Crystal Light malt
- 1 oz. (28 g) Cascade whole hops @ 75 min (16.6 IBUs)
- 1 oz. (28 g) Cascade whole hops @ 60 min (16 IBUs)
- 1 oz. (28 g) Cascade whole hops @ 15 min (8 IBUs)
- 1 oz. (28 g) Cascade whole hops @ 5 min (3.2 IBUs)
- Lallemand LalBrew BRY-97
Yield: 5 US gal. (18.9 L)
Original Gravity: 1.060 (14.7°P)
Final Gravity: 1.013 (3.3°P)
Mash grains for 1 hour at 156–158°F (69–70°C). Mash out at 168°F (76°C) for 15 minutes. Boil 75 minutes, adding hops as indicated. Ferment at 66–70°F (19–21°C) for two weeks and then keg or bottle.
Steep Simpsons Crystal Light malt in 1 gal. (4 L) of water at 155°F (68°C) for 30 minutes. Remove grains and dissolve 6.25 lb. (2.8 kg) pale dried malt extract in the hot liquid. Top up to boil volume, bring to a boil, and proceed as above.
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