PlumpJack Wine & Spirits brings you this month’s beer club tasting notes for June. We’re shining a spotlight on the updating of established craft beers. Meet Lagunitas CitruSinensis Pale Ale (a variation of New Dogtown Pale Ale) and Green Flash’s new West Coast IPA. Based on brands that have been brewed for a combined 32 years, these veteran breweries are recalibrating to the ever-shifting, ever-growing craft beer market. It’s fascinating and instructive to witness these beers rebrand and experiment in today’s craft beer scene.
Rich Higgins, Master Cicerone
Tony Magee, the founder of Lagunitas Brewing Company, likes to quote a professor from the design school he attended in the 1980s: “A product is frozen information.” A product like a single beer is a snapshot within the larger continuum of beer, and breweries use their beer brands to continually broadcast the same information over and over again because the beers’ messages are valuable to the brewery and (they hope) to the consumer. But as some craft beer brands are going on 30-35 years old (and grandaddy Anchor Steam is at 50), these breweries are confronted with the need to keep their information, message, and commentary resonant. Some breweries are now altering core brands to freeze the information into a new snapshot.
Craft beer is booming right now all over the United States. New breweries are opening at an amazing clip of more than one per day, and the craft beer’s share of the American beer market is in double digits. The growth is led by brewers new and old — with both new neighborhood upstarts and established regional brewers building second and third breweries, sometimes in the same town, sometimes across the country (including Lagunitas), and some (like Green Flash) partnering with breweries in Europe. The challenge for established breweries is to keep their core brands perpetually trusted and enjoyed by a market that’s faced with new breweries and new brands at every turn. There are a hundred approaches to this challenge (or opportunity) and no single recipe for surefire success. But a couple recent beers from Lagunitas and Green Flash offer a couple strategies. For Magee, it’s an opportunity to check back in with craft beer’s “community and passion element,” he believes, “because that is the engine behind it . . . that replaces imagery and artifice.”
CitruSinensis Pale Ale Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, California, USA 7.9% ABV
Keeping up with the consumer clamor for new one-off beers, in 2015 Lagunitas is brewing and promoting its “One Hitter Series” of beers. Brewed once, sold once, and get ‘em while they’re hot, cause when they’re gone, they’re gone. For June, their One Hitter is “CitruSinensis” Pale Ale, what the brewery calls “a wheatier version of our New Dogtown Pale Ale,” spiked with with blood orange juice. First brewed in 1994, Dogtown Pale Ale struggled to compete with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and so Magee put all his chips into brewing an IPA at a time before IPA was a proven seller. Dogtown Pale Ale has been a core brand that’s played second fiddle to Lagunitas IPA ever since. The brewery rewrote the recipe about 5 years ago, re-releasing it as New Dogtown and infusing it with more dry hops, creating a incredibly delicious pale ale that, nonetheless, still lags in category sales behind stalwarts like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Deschutes Mirror Pond. In the interim, Lagunitas has opened a new brewery in Chicago and has just announced plans to open a third brewery in Los Angeles County, and Magee has kept his incredibly successful IPA’s recipe and message consistent, leaving room to experiment with (New) Dogtown Pale Ale.
The current experiment is a new riff on several craft beer successes, proving that there’s never too much of a good thing. Citrus ⨯ sinensis is the biological name of the common, sweet orange, including blood orange cultivars. The brewery juiced a Sicilian variety of blood orange known as sanguinello, evaporated the juice’s water content so as not to water down the beer, and added it to a batch of New Dogtown. The ale yeast fermented the juice’s sugars, upping the beer’s ABV to 7.9%. Of course, the blood orange aromatics dovetail beautifully with the hops’ already citrusy, grapefruit aromas, but the pleasant surprise for me is how much the juice’s citric acid contributes to lightening this big beer’s palate, recalling the soft tartness of a gose and making a zesty, refreshing American craft beer version of a German Radler (German bicyclists’ classic post-ride mix of beer and lemonade). The “wheatier” part of the recipe is a move borrowed from Lagunitas’s successful wheaty IPA, Lil’ Sumpin Sumpin — the wheat adds a dash of refreshing acidity and a bready backbone to the beer. Magee is, among other things, craft beer’s visionary and hippie Bard, and to borrow one of his own quotes: “The soul in the brand’s initial incarnation has moved on to other realms.”
CitruSinensis pours a slightly hazy, light orange color, capped by a head of white foam. (Some yeasty, orangey goodness has settled at bottom of the bottle — be sure to pour it all!) Jumping from the glass are aromas of intense orange, with hints of raspberry and marionberry (from the blood orange), along with fresh pine, hempseed, and cannabis from the hops, and a whisper of toasty malt. A sip reveals a tart, bitter-sweet ale with layers of orange and resiny bitterness. The mouthfeel is smooth and wheaty, while the OJ adds a refreshing, lip-smacking kick. Citrusy aromas of American hops are the soul of an American IPA, and CitruSinensis is an exploration of these aromas writ large, but instead of amplifying them with brazen additions of hop flowers, it’s a study in citrus from the genuine article, and it’s some of the best blood orange I’ve tasted. Pair this beer with salty, savory, crispy foods that could use a spritz of citrus — fried calamari with lemon aioli, steamed artichoke with ranch, or grilled swiss cheese sandwich with garlicky, sautéed kale.
West Coast IPA Green Flash Brewing Company, San Diego, California, USA 8.1% ABV
Green Flash’s portfolio of beers is an ode to IPA. Other than their double stout, their ultra hoppy red ale, and an occasional one-off, you’re hard-pressed to find a beer without IPA on the label, from session IPA all the way up to Triple IPA. (They did just open up Cellar 3, a facility dedicated to barrel aging and blending, so we’re sure to see some new creations bubble up from there in the future.) The brewery first brewed West Coast IPA in 2004 and trademarked the name in 2010. They called the beer an IPA, but with its 95 bitterness units balanced by 7.3% ABV, this was an ascerbically epic IPA/DIPA hybrid masquerading as an IPA. Green Flash has made its name by brewing beers that break a style’s upper limits, even calling its 30th Street Pale “an IPA on any other street.” (It’s dedicated to the main drag that connects the city’s beer-focused North and South Park neighborhoods.) It seems that 2014 brought a spirit of recalibration to Green Flash, and West Coast IPA is labeled a double India pale ale, now officially out of the double IPA closet. The new label for 30th St. Pale Ale upgrades it to an IPA (at 45 IBUs and 6.0% ABV, it’s close to the marks for Lagunitas IPA), while the new Soul Style IPA splits the difference at 75 IBUs and 6.5% ABV.
There’s more to a beer than numbers, and there’s even more to the perception of bitterness than IBUs. Brewmaster Chuck Silva has beefed up West Coast IPA a bit with more alcohol, from 7.3% to the current 8.1%, courtesy of about 10% more malt. He introduced a fifth hop into the recipe, adding Citra to the line-up of Simcoe, Columbus, Centennial, and Cascade, creating an even more robust cocktail of hops. You can ignore the language on the label that lists the hops’ roles as convenient and tidy. The language on the label isn’t insincere, it’s just necessarily oversimplified. The fact is all five of these hops share cross-over aromas of citrus, pine, and flowers, and any of them can be pungent if you boil them long enough. The aromas of each hop are different in different applications: Simcoe are undoubtedly tropical, as are Citra, and Centennials usually smell to me like white flowers, but with a steely, metallic edge. Columbus are prized for their grapefruity, piney, resinous quality, but they often bring garlicky, oniony hints, too, which Silva, a master of hops, deftly avoids.
West Coast IPA, the double India pale ale, pours a rich copper color beneath a lasting white head. The bouquet shows what this beer is all about: heady aromas of pine, orange blossom, grapefruit, pineapple, melon, mint, and cannabis, with just a whiff of malty bread crumbs. Drinking it brings a tide of bitterness that’s only partially tempered by the lush fruity flavors. Visions of pink grapefruit Jelly Bellies and candied orange peel duke it out with masochistic nibbles of pine cone and lemongrass soap. Malts provide slight almondy, bread crust flavors, while providing the backbone to deliver a fountain of hops. This beer is more than just an overly exuberant hop bomb, and the subtlety of its malt lends the beer the cleanness and leanness of a San-Diego-style IPA, while its towering hoppiness shows some elegance by avoiding hops’ less appealing garlicky, oniony, and leafy vegetal flavors. This double IPA pulls no punches, focusing on the task at hand: delivering tons of citrusy hop bitterness. For food pairing, go for rich foods that can handle a lot of aromatics (herbs, spices, citrus, etc.). Chinese orange chicken, duck tacos, scallop ceviche, hominy-studded posole, or Moroccan tagine would all be great. For dessert, make an orange-creamsicle-inspired beer float by adding scoop of vanilla ice cream to a glass of this beer (trust me — it’s dirty, wrong, and delicious).