Bob Ross may have popularized the phrase “happy accident,” but the happiest of them all may come from Lagunitas Brewing Company. Back in 1997, the brewers attempted to make a batch of the company’s Olde GnarlyWine seasonal barley wine, but something went awry. The result, according to the brewery, was “an all-new-beer-style we like to call... Irresponsible.” And whether you now call it a strong ale or special ale, Lagunitas’ Brown Shugga’ has become a winter seasonal many look forward to all year. It’s boozy, offers equally big flavor, yet isn’t a stout. It’s a welcome alternative to typical holiday fare, like skipping the fruit cake in favor of Oreos.
Appearance and Aroma
Brown Shugga’ is a deep, golden amber verging on brown, evoking maple syrup and pecan pie, even though it most closely resembles a rich red ale. If you like baked goods—and who doesn’t?—Brown Shugga’ offers one of the more alluring whiffs of beer you’ll find. The titular brown sugar is present, but you’ll also get snickerdoodles, molasses, or waffles from sniff to sniff.
Brown Shugga' has a distinct flavor profile that will appeal to folks who normally skip dark beers.”
Even though this a beer named explicitly for sugar, that first sip will take someone new to Brown Shugga’ by surprise. I’d call it syrupy because there’s a noticeably different viscosity compared to other beers, but it’s not overly sweet. Instead, Brown Shugga’ offers a heaping helping of molasses up front while finishing with the bitterness of a crisp pale ale (and that's the sensation that lingers, not the sweetness). It’s an extremely unique sensation: Deadspin once called it a beer that “tastes like cookies and weed;” someone on BeerAdvocate wrote it’s as if “hops ride in like surfers on a satin tidal wave of molasses.” Things will even change slightly as the beer warms to room temperature, but each point along that journey proves to be enjoyable.
Brown Shugga’ may be weird in terms of beer archetypes or the brewer’s original intentions, but it’s wonderful in practice. It’ll provide enough heft for those that prefer the typical high-ABV styles of winter, but it has a distinct flavor profile that will appeal to folks who normally skip dark beers. During taste testing, we also realized this beer boasts what may be the ultimate signal of a holiday seasonal: If you happen to have a candy cane nearby, don’t be afraid to open it mid-beer. It’ll pair well with Lagunitas’ happy accident, too.