Beer: IPA Brewery: Lagunitas Brewing Co. Style: American IPA ABV: 6.2 percent
When you work around craft beer, the most common question people ask is, "So, what's your favorite beer?" I'm never able to answer -- I freeze up like I've been stumped at the spelling bee and usually mumble something unintelligible about imperial stouts. To me, it's an impossible question. There are more than 2,700 breweries operating in the U.S. alone, many cranking out dozens of different brands. How can I pick just one?
My buddy Patrick has a better answer. His favorite beer of all time, he says, was the New Belgium Fat Tire he pulled from the still-moving bottling line during a tour of NB's packaging facility. He recalls in detail the moisture-beaded bottle; the cap, placed just seconds before, jumping off the glass lip with a combo pop-hiss; the flavors of the liquid clean and pure as diamonds. I was next to him that day and can testify that no Fat Tire since has tasted as sweet and crisp. It was sublime.
Point being: Where you drink a beer matters. Freshness and atmosphere can impact flavor, or your perception of it, as much as any other outside force. Freshness and atmosphere, however, are controllable.
Which brings us to this week's brew, Lagunitas IPA. You've probably tried this hoppy ale before. It's a common draft at bars that focus on craft -- and even more common in bars that don't, usually as the only IPA available. Maybe you've had it several times -- so many that its commonplace status deters you from a revisit.
But if you're not familiar...
Lagunitas is one of the country's older craft breweries, having been founded in 1993 by Tony Magee (rhymes!). It's also one of the fastest-growing -- Magee moved the brewery out of its birthplace in Lagunitas, Calif. (where the name came from) to its current home in Petaluma, Calif. just one year after he opened the place. Today, it's the country's fifth-largest craft brewery by sales volume, producing more than 100,000 barrels of beer each year.
IPA was Lagunitas' first seasonal, released in 1995. The beer's labels claim it's "made with 43 different hops and 65 various malts," which would be badass if true, if wildly impractical. Cascade and Centennial are in the greatest abundance, and they combine to deliver flavors and aromas of citrus zest and bitter pine. In nearly every bottle and draft version of Lagunitas IPA I've tried, these hops were prominent but unspectacular; they delivered bitterness and muddled hop flavor balanced by a bit of sweet malt. It was an all-around decent IPA.
But then I went to the mothership. I walked through the dog-friendly grounds to the second-floor space that used to be Lagunitas' main taproom and now serves as a hangout of sorts for employees and as the first stop on the brewery's many daily tours. The place is long and narrow. One wall is full of windows facing downward into the brewery; the other three are bedecked with photographs, street signs, posters, dolls -- hundreds of pieces of random, awesome junk arranged with a pot-smoker's sense of decor. In this room, surrounded by decades of kitsch, settling into a chair I'm pretty sure was purchased during the Nixon Administration and had been shaped and softened by hundreds of butts before me, I tasted the best Lagunitas IPA I've ever tasted.
Oh, it looked the same as it always had: golden-orange, just a little hazy, with a dense, gluelike head that settles in for an extended stay. But the aroma! It was similar to the beer-as-usual, but was brighter, clearer, as if an optometrist had clicked his machine over to a second olfactory option that finally enabled me to pick out notes of grapefruit, lemon, strawberry and weed in perfect clarity. The flavor was equally enhanced, here with now-noticeable grass and earth and just a pinch of crystal malt to keep the hops in proportion. The body was medium-full; the carbonation mellow; the whole experience pretty magnificent.
This isn't to say I'm naming Lagunitas IPA to the top spot on my personal list. But it has helped me find an answer to the question: my favorite beer is one that's enjoyed at the source. A beer tasted in its birthplace is the best version of that brew you'll find. You owe it to yourself -- and to the beer -- to go find it.