Is Lagunitas Brewery cheating?

There is an amazing amount of upfront hop taste in some of their beers. I just compared a Lagunitas “Sucks: Holiday Ale, Brown Shugga’ substitute” to Sierra Nevada’s previously wonderful “Estate Homegrown Ale” and the result was bullshit.

I’ve had the Sierra Estate Ale before and I found it to be magical. I stood in my kitchen with a pint glass of it in my hand, and did nothing else but drink and exclaim, “Wow, this is good! This is fantastic! Holy God!” However, at $10 a 22 oz. bottle, it is not a beer I have very often. In fact, I have been saving one in my fridge for over a month now. Waiting for just the right time to indulge, and I chose tonight. Unfortunately I seem to have spoiled the whole experience by first drinking the Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale. I decided to buy some tonight because I was listening to “The Session” podcast on the Brewing Network and they had nominated it for beer of the year. I had seen the Lagunitas Sucks Holiday on the Shelves during the Christmas season but I had refused to buy it because I was angry at the brewery. I was mad because they stopped brewing my all time favorite beer, which was their Imperial Red. Not only did Lagunitas discontinue my arduously chosen favorite beer, but they kept on brewing one of the very few beers I actually dislike, which is their retchingly sweet, Brown Shugga Ale. Since I had been heavily promoting their Imperial Red for over four years I felt personally insulted. A hundred times I said “They should make THIS there flagship beer. Everybody has an IPA but nobody makes a great Imperial Red!” Instead, Lagunitas discontinued the seasonal Imperial Red without explanation, even though it was based on the very first beer the brewery ever created. I sent emails to the company and talked to workers during two visits to the brewery and they told me there weren’t any plans to brew it again in the future. I then bought my own brew kit with the sole purpose of learning to brew beer just to re-create their Imperial Red. Success is still pending.
Due to some sort of problem with brewing capacity, Brown Shugga was also not brewed by Lagunitas this year However, unlike the unceremonious end of Imperial Red, Lagunitas actually brewed an apology beer for all the swell folks that had demanded more Brown Shugga. Hence, the “Lagunitas Sucks” reference in the title. They’re so sorry that they couldn’t brew their crappiest beer this year.
The problem with Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale Brow Shugga substitute, other than the long name and that it has nothing to do with traditional holiday ale, is the same problem that I have with their “Hop Stupid.” All the taste is up front, nothing lingers, the initial hop taste is huge, it overwhelms the beer. It tastes great. Normally, when I get punched in the mouth with that much hop taste I hold the beer up to the light in reverence and ponder its greatness, but not with Lagunitis Sucks Holiday Ale. The sensation was too fleeting. Instead I stood there slightly confused and thought. “Now why don’t I love this?”
It reminds me of a segment I saw on 60 minutes about how chemical companies create artificially strong flavors that dissipate quickly so that the foods they add them to become addictive. I don’t think Lagunitas is attempting to make beer more addictive, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they are adding artificial flavor to sensationalize what would otherwise be an ordinary beer. They don’t mention dry hopping on the bottle, which would be the most obvious way to give it that up front hop bang. The beer does smell wildly promising, but the payoff doesn’t taste like great BEER, not to me at least. .
Pliny the Elder is a classic example of a beer with nice up front smell and hop bang, but what makes it an awesome beer is the strong beery sensation that lingers after you drink it.
After the Lagunitas Sucks I decided to cure my hop confusion by breaking out the Sierra Nevada Estate Ale. I know from experience this is a wonderful and powerful beer. However, after the hop spike of the Lagunitas Sucks, the wow factor from the wet hop taste was gone. The beer was still very good, but I think my taste buds had been stunned.

Lagunitas Imperial Red will be returning in late January! In the past the Imperial Red came out in the fall. I don’t know if this is a one off or if they are making it a regular seasonal again. I have to believe that I wasn’t the only person who complained. I am excited to be able to try it again. There are surprisingly very few breweries that do a strong and hoppy Imperial Red. The most well known is Hop Head Red from Green Flash Brewery but it is almost a different style than the Lagunitas version, lighter and dry hopped. It doesn’t have that faint sweetness of the Lagunitas Imperial Red. Likewise, the Red Leaf at my favorite Main Street Brewery in Pleasanton is more of a smoky, foamy version of an Imperial Red which I also love very much, but it’s only on tap a few months a year. Other strong reds that I really like are Evil Twin from the new Haritic Brewery. Ale Smith had their Yule Smith Holiday Ale. Speakeasy had Imperial Red that I really liked this year, but it was gone quickly and I don’t even see it mentioned on their web site. Same with the 2010 Drake’s Jolly Roger. The closest match to Lagunitas Imperial Red that I came across were two bottles of Double Dread Imperial Red from Mad River Brewery that I found at Beer Revolution. For whatever reason, I have never come across this beer again. On the Mad River web site it is the only beer in their line-up that doesn’t have an upcoming next release date or a T-shirt. I’m not sure why the Imperial Red style is not more popular. Eventually there will be a brewery that has great success in marketing an Imperial Red and then the style will be popularized. For now I’m going to stock up on the Lagunitas Imperial Red while it lasts.