BREWTAL TRUTH: Drink This Now…Whatever It Is

Anyone who’s sampled more than a few craft beers can attest to the fact that it’s not always clear from the label what’s going to be inside the bottle. Oh sure, it might say something like “Brettanomyces-fermented Belgian quad aged on oak with cherries and bottle conditioned,” but figuring out what that’s going to taste like may not be as clear as labels that just say “IPA,” “lager” or “stout.” This is both the beauty AND befuddling nature of the craft beer industry. We love it for the insane creativity, but sometimes we scratch our heads at beers that we really don’t know what to make of.
Petaluma, CA
9.4% ABV

Though Lagunitas does brew a few beers with reasonably comprehensible names (“IPA,” “Pils,” etc.) it is intentionally vague or “playful,” if you will, with naming and describing most of the lineup. The awesomely named Hairy Eyeball included. When we purchased this beer for the first time, it was as much for the name, as what was inside. We were familiar enough with other Lagunitas beers to expect that it would be strong and hoppy; beyond that the label offered no description of the beer inside. There were just a few beer nerd stats, like the “O.G.” (which in this case means the “original gravity,” not “original gangsta”). But it’s safe to say that we hadn’t the slightest clue as to what we were about to put in pour mouth. Which is either a good thing or bad thing, depending on how adventurous you are. But, hey, the bottle was purchased with the faith that it would not only be drinkable, but that we’d probably enjoy it, so down the drinkhole it went.

Well, actually—as we tend to do—it was sniffed pretty thoroughly and determined to be pleasing in its aromas, though way maltier than expected. In fact, malt notes dominated. Not too surprising given the deep, red-tinged chestnut color of the brew. Quite frankly, it looked and smelled like a barley wine. And given that this is generally the time of year that breweries release their barley wines, it’s likely that The Hairy Eyeball is Lagunitas’ version of a barley wine.

So, “Why the hell don’t they just put those words on the label?,” one could reasonably ask. Two little words. In this case, we’d guess, it’s because it’s a Lagunitas product and very little the company does is conventional, and much of what it does is purposely contrary. And that’s why a lot of craft beer drinkers love Lagunitas. Well, that and the fact that the beer is incredibly well-made and delicious.

It may not say so on the label, but this is about as close to a barley wine as you can get. It has rich flavors of caramel, toffee and chocolate, and just enough aromatic and bittering hops to provide a foil for the mountain of malt that must have gone into it. It’s a little sweet, just the right amount of bitter and plenty boozy for evening sipping. It’s actually very unlike many of their beers, which typically (though not exclusively) have a hop-forward profile. So, even though we were willing to take a leap of faith with this, it didn’t exactly turn out to be what we surmised. Tasted great, but the hop presence just wasn’t there. Had “barley wine” (or even something as vague as “barley wineish imperial IPA sorta” that Rogue puts on its New Crustacean) been on the label, would we have made a different purchase? Hard to say, but we definitely prefer a craft beer world that’s weird and chaotic and colors outside the lines, to one that is static, boring and predictable.

Adem Tepedelen’s new craft beer book, Decibel Presents the Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits, is now available in the Decibel online store.