Some beers’ origin stories are more glamour than others. Sometimes, a beer isn’t planned and scrutinized over, recipes aren’t perfected via batch after batch of almost-there brews. Sometimes, missing the mark is a good thing and a happy accident leads to a magical results.
When we’re lucky, those fortuitous brews turn out like New Glarus’ Serendipity or the one-time Christmas Ale from Lagunitas, their substitute for Brown Shugga’ named Lagunitas Sucks that has remained in their rotation.
The story behind Serendipity is somewhat well-documented, but because New Glarus is committed to using ingredients grown or produced only in its home state of Wisconsin, that meant when cranberries—the most commonly grown fruit in the state—were at a surplus, along with locally grown apples and cherries, head brewer Dan Carey decided to put all three into a sour ale. The result was a fruit-forward sour that has since become a flagship of New Glarus.
In fact, fruit sours were the motivation behind Carey starting his brewery with his wife Deborah in 1993. They have since become synonymous Spotted Cow, but visitors to their facilities just west of Madison would do well to taste their fruit beers, especially the aptly-named Serendipity.
Unlike the surplus of fruit that brought about Serendipity, Lagunitas Sucks happened because of capacity issues in Petaluma, California, where all Lagunitas beers were made until they expanded to Chicago, Seattle and Azusa.
In 2011, when Lagunitas was due to release their Brown Shugga’ (itself a result of a failed batch of a GnarlyWine back in 1997), renovations to the brewery and issues with the brewing schedule kept them from being able to produce their usual seasonal ale. They preempted the complaints by making a hoppy-yet-smooth replacement from spare parts of the usual barley, grain and hops along with wheat, rye and oats. The result was called “Lagunitas Sucks.”
As they often do, Lagunitas included the story of the beer on its label, and in 2011, that read:
“This sad holiday season we didn’t have the brewing capacity to make our favorite seasonal brew, the widely famous BrownShugga’ Ale. You see, we had a couple really good years (thank you very much) and so heading into this season while we are awaiting a January delivery of a new brewhouse we are jammin’ brewing 80 barrels of IPA and Pils and such every 3 hours. A couple months back we realized that since we can only brew a mere 60 barrels of Shugga’ every 5 hours, that we were seriously screwed. For every case of Shugga’ brewed, we'd short 3 cases of our daily brews. The new brewhouse will help insure that this kind of failure never happens again. It’s a mess that we can not brew our BrownShugga’ this year and we suck for not doing it. There is nothing cool about screwing up this badly and we know it. Maybe we can sue our sorry selves. There is no joy in our hearts this holiday and the best we can hope for is a quick and merciful end. F*@& us. This totally blows. Whatever. We freaking munch moldy donkey butt and we just want it all to be over...Beer Speaks, Lagunitas Sucks.”
The irony, of course, is that the beer has remained in their rotation and that it is arguably among their best work.
The first batch turned out really well, and I felt like ‘I got this,’ but going forward I found more challenges that arose with the style.”
Like Serendipity and Sucks, Braxton Labs Brewing’s “New England IPA #002” didn’t turn out as planned, but in this case, the beer didn’t stick. Braxton is in Newport, Kentucky, an offshoot of Cincinnati just across the Ohio River. Although it was only founded in 2015, this brewery was already on their second batch of New England-style IPA by July of this year.
New England IPA #002 is the product of Braxton Labs, an extension of the main brewery that opened on Memorial Day weekend this year with the goal of providing space specifically for innovation. Braxton Labs’ head brewer Zac Boehnke honed his brewing prowess as a home brewer for nearly a decade before joining Braxton. New England IPA #002 was his brainchild. Like many breweries as of late, getting on board with the latest craze in craft brewing took some doing.
The New England style is familiar to even the casual craft beer drinkers by now. Thick with haze and heavy with dry hops for an unmistakable nose, it goes down so citrusy that it could nearly accompany breakfast. In Boehnke’s words, it brings IPAs to people who don’t usually like IPAs.
But on first pour, New England IPA #002 didn’t have the expected qualities. Dark and not nearly translucent enough, it looked more like a powerful double-IPA than anything belonging in the New England genre. The nose hit the mark, but the appearance didn’t match expectations. The taste, though, the taste was regal.
“I don’t think I would release #002 again,” Boehnke told me after reflecting on the process of learning the style and even feeling like he had hit the mark on his first batch. Maltier and darker than it should have been, the #002 still demonstrated a consistency that Boehnke felt good about. “It was a little bit clearer, but more consistent. Some are so murky that it is difficult to wrap your head around,” he said. “More like a hefeweizen cloudy.”
The cloudiness he describes is the sex appeal in New England IPAs, to a degree that any batch that allows for even an iota of light to pass through could be considered inferior. But Boehnke said that prioritizing style oftens presents problems with consistency. These murky beers might be very challenging to replicate at best and simply low quality at worst. For Boehnke, his first batch of New England-style IPA was more true to the genre than his second, but replicating that success didn’t work.
“The first batch turned out really well, and I felt like ‘I got this,’ but going forward I found more challenges that arose with the style,” Boehnke said. “It’s the timing of the dry hop, the grist build...there are a handful of techniques with that style, and trying to implement those become a bit more difficult than I thought.”
Born out of challenge and frustration, #002 hits inversely with balance and smoothness that belies the struggle it took to make it. Malty and dark, yes, with the surprise citrusy brightness appropriate for a New England, but not usually found in a classic double. Alas, Boehnke says it was a one-and-done, leaving it a haunt in my memory. I tasted it once and might be doomed to chase that accidental hybrid New England/Double IPA until I find another like it.
The good beers bring out the storyteller in us, and the ones like Serendipity and Sucks stick around to keep those stories going.