Although today's tasting was slated to be Sierra Nevada's Northern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop Ale, visiting family brought a bottle of their Estate Homegrown Wet Hop Ale for me, which I believe to be using the same proportions and brewing style but using different sourced ingredients. Not able to make a choice between the two, I couldn't turn down the opportunity to do a head-to-head comparison.
Sierra Nevada's Harvest Series is comprised of the aforementioned, seasonally available Northern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop and it's seasonally-opposite sibling, Southern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop Ale. The philosophy and brewing techniques are the same (fresh hops being used in place of the traditionally dried hops to impart fresher, stronger flavors through the oils); the only difference is the source of the hops (Washington for Northern, New Zealand for Southern). It was my suspicion that their Estate Homegrown Ale followed the same formula, except using exclusively organic hops and malts grown on their property. As a wine drinker, I was curious to see how much of the terrior actually comes through in a hoppy ale.
Poured side-by-side in the same style glasses, both the Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale and the Estate Homegrown Ale were bright, orange-auburn hues falling just short of crystal clear, although the Estate Homegrown Ale was slightly darker in color. The head was lacy on both, but the Estate's head was thicker and creamier throughout the tasting. They had markedly different noses, with the Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale being dominated by pine and tropical fruit notes while the Estate Homegrown Ale had significantly less hop notes and a more pronounced sweet malt presence.
The Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale started on the tongue with an aggressive citrus that became more piney as the bitterness started to overwhelm and lingered on the tongue. It ended with barley-there hints of earthy malt notes and a lasting stickiness in mouth.
Estate Homegrown Ale, by contrast, was flatter in the mouth and much less aggressive in it's hop profile. Not nearly as bitter, it had very mature malt profile, toasty and a slight marmalade sweetness. Like it's nose, the body was creamier in the mouth and it had a slightly less dry finish, but with none of the bitterness and a lingering marmalade toast flavor.
Neither were "better"... it's a matter of preference. I love the Northern Hemisphere for it's aggressive nature and hopped out flavor, while the Estate is more refined and nuanced. If I'm correct in my assumption of the source of the ingredients being the only difference, Sierra Nevada makes a compelling case for a approaching true boutique beers in a fashion similar to an oenophile; walking away from mass production and starting to recognize the characteristics of the land and seasons in how they influence the raw ingredients.