Beer Of The Week: Kickoff / Lagunitas IPA

First, an introduction.

I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that there has been no better place and time, ever, to be a beer lover.  I was thinking about this yesterday as I was browsing the beer aisle at my local grocery store, where I had at my fingertips a pale ale from twenty miles away, an oatmeal stout from Chicago, a lager from Brazil, and a Trappist ale from Belgium – among many, many others.  And that selection was comparatively modest: at a larger specialty beer store, it would almost be possible to taste a beer from every state in the union – and that’s not even counting the wide number of foreign beers that are available to the discriminating drinker in the United States in 2010.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Prohibition drove most breweries out of business, and unlike wineries, they were slow to rebound.  In the 1960s, there was exactly one microbrewery in the United States – Anchor Steam, in San Francisco.  Beer drinkers were forced to turn to mild, mass-produced lagers – like Miller, Budweiser, or Rolling Rock – or, if they had the means, to buy expensive imported beer.  Even microbrews that today have huge production and distribution chains, like Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada, were founded surprisingly recently – 1984 and 1980, respectively.

The past thirty years, though, have seen an explosion of quality craft beers.  Today, there are over 1,600 microbreweries in the United States alone.  On tap across the country it’s not uncommon to find names like Goose Island, Old Speckled Hen, and Brooklyn Brewery crowding out the more traditional Budweiser and Coors Light.  And there is an interest in the process of brewing beer, and a sense that beer is as important, culturally, as its grape-based counterpart.  These trends have given rise to any number of extremely tasty craft beers, available almost anywhere in innumerable types.

So!  In order to celebrate this incredible variety available to me, I’ve decided to try and review one beer a week.  I won’t have too many rules for this because, hey, drinking beer should be fun.  But there will be a few guidelines that I’ll subscribe to.

I’ll try to stick to beers I’ve never had before. I may break this one from time to time.  But for the most part, the point of this is to try new stuff.

I won’t use a lot of ambiguous, beer-y terms. Mostly because I don’t know them.  But as a reader, there’s nothing I hate more than sentences like, “Pine-y and floral in taste, with a hint of toasted bread maltiness.  Some notes of caramel.”  This doesn’t help me decide if I’ll like the beer.  What I’ll try to focus on are things like: how does the beer taste relative to other beers?  Would I drink this beer again?  How does the beer go with food?  What kind of tradition is the brewer working in?  I understand that most of the people reading this blog are not experienced beer tasters, and neither am I, so my criteria for evaluation are going to reflect that.

However, sometimes these terms may be unavoidable.  So if you need a primer, see this.

No matter how bad a beer may be, I’ll try to drink at least three of them throughout the week. I will make exceptions for things like seasonals or specialties, which might only be available in the brewery.  But if I have it at my house, I’ll give it at least a half a sixpack to prove itself.

I welcome suggestions and discussion. If there’s one thing we can all agree to talk about, it’s gotta be beer, right?  So, if you’ve tried the beer I’m tasting, something similar, or just feel like talking about a beer you had recently, swing by the comments.

(Also: this might not actually happen weekly. I’m pretty bad at sticking to schedules.  But I figure that putting the timeframe in the name makes me more likely to stick to it.)

For my first beer, I went with the Lagunitas India Pale Ale, because a) I’d heard a lot of really great things about it and b) it’s brewed right down the road in Petaluma, California.  I understand it’s a very popular beer here in California – it’s the best-selling IPA in the state – but back in New York, where I’ve done the majority of my beer drinking, it wasn’t as readily available.

West Coast IPAs are strong, bold beers, light in color but big on flavor.  They tend to be very hoppy, leading to a bitter taste that can sometimes be a little skunky – “beer with a lot of beer in it”, as I once heard a friend describe Bear Republic’s (extremely strong) double-IPA.  As far as I can tell, there’s no actual correlation between the strength of an IPA and its geographic point of origin – stronger IPAs are simply described as West Coast, even when they’re produced by brewers like Delaware’s Dogfish Head.

The Lagunitas IPA is as good as an IPA can get without having a truly outstanding characteristic.  This is a great casual beer, not one that requires your full attention but one that would be pleasant to drink in almost any situation.  True to form, it goes down easy and doesn’t sit heavily – I could drink three or four of these and not feel full.  It does have a reasonably high alcohol concentration by volume – over 6% – so you’ll start to feel it before too long.  It’s flavor is complex enough that you won’t feel like you’re drinking water (or – shudder – Pabst), but not so unusual that it’ll trip you up.  When I’m in a bar and I want to order a beer off the cuff, I generally go with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, because I don’t have to think about it at all – I know it’ll taste great.  I could easily see the Lagunitas IPA taking over that role, if it were more generally available (and here, it might be).

Bottom line: if you love beer, the Lagunitas IPA will be pleasant but not mind-blowing.  If you don’t like beer – or you’re not sure if you like IPAs – this is a great introduction to a more complex brew.

(Also, I love the bottles’ cocky inscription: “Thanks for choosing to spend the next few minutes with this special homicidally hoppy ale. Savor the moment as the raging hop character engages the Imperial Qualities of the Malt Foundation in mortal combat on the battlefield of your palate!”)