A Guide To Lagunitas, America's Fastest-Growing Craft Brewery

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In late June, Tony Magee, founder and chief of Lagunitas Brewing Co., announced over his loquacious Twitter feed that the company would open its third plant in Azusa, about 25 miles east of Los Angeles, in early 2017.

Lagunitas, arguably America's fastest-growing craft brewery, already has two locations: one just north of San Francisco, in Petaluma, California, and another in Chicago. Together, they have the capacity to churn out 1.95 million barrels annually, enough to help place Lagunitas at no. 6 on the Brewers Association's 2014 list of the top craft breweries in the United States, ranked by sales volume. The Chicago facility, located in Magee's hometown, opened in 2014 and is already heading toward maximum capacity. The Azusa location is being built to handle as much as 1.2 million barrels by itself. (For some quick perspective: A Miller plant near the Azusa location has a capacity of 11 million barrels.)

Why the rapid expansion? It all goes back to when Magee's younger brother, who worked at an Oregon brewpub, bought him a homebrewing kit for Christmas in 1992. Magee shortly thereafter launched Lagunitas as a one-man operation in the unincorporated Marin County area that gave the upstart company its name. He worked around his day job as a successful paper-goods salesman, a position he fell into after toiling as a musician for years. (His biggest musical coups might have been writing arrangements for Pizza Hut, Hallmark and — irony of ironies — Bud Light commercials.)

The First Gulf War had interrupted his paper business quite a bit, leaving Magee with ever more time for commercial brewing just as craft beer was really starting to take off nationally. The sector's annual sales would grow by double-digit percentages throughout the 1990s, and once-tiny Lagunitas would grow frenetically along with it.

Yes, part of that was the decade's general craft-beer craze. (Think Pete's Wicked and Sam Adams.) But another part of it was the beers Magee chose to brew. They were envelope pushers, nearly every last one, stylistically androgynous. The brand names and Magee's self-penned explanations on the accompanying packaging offered little help in understanding them from the outside. The stories in the J. Peterman clothing catalog inspired Magee — this was just before TV's Seinfeld immortalized them — and he built similarly whimsical, often nonsensical stories around his beers. Hence, the origin of Lagunitas Oktoberfest in "the Dark Age reign of Sir Loin of Boef."

Most auspiciously, Lagunitas was the first California brewery to lead with an India pale ale as its signature. This was a huge deal in the tiny world of craft beer then — and a bit of a gamble, too. Other, older California breweries had hoppier, bitterer offerings. San Francisco's Anchor made Liberty Ale, the precursor to the modern American IPA, but its flagship was Anchor Steam. Sierra Nevada, out of Chico, led with its Pale Ale, but it was just that: a pale ale.

Here came Magee and Lagunitas with a straight-up IPA, and not just any IPA. Lagunitas's lead was immensely bitter, yet sweet, and it clocked in at what was then a somewhat scandalous 6 percent-plus alcohol by volume. Remember, the era's two biggest craft beers were Pete's Wicked Ale, a mild brown ale, and Samuel Adams Boston Lager, a malty lager; neither by design had much bite to its bitterness. Their success seemed to show the way forward for modern craft beer, which was barely a generation old. Conversely, Lagunitas and the handful of other California breweries propounding what became known as the ultra-hoppy West Coast style showed another way — one that turned out to be what everyone was waiting for anyway. The best-selling craft-beer style in the U.S. today? IPA.

Here are six releases — five year-round and one seasonal — to ease you into Lagunitas's eclectic portfolio.

Lagunitas2 Lagunitas's Day Time is a low-alcohol "fractional IPA," ideal for lunch. Or maybe even breakfast. (Photo courtesy of Lagunitas Brewing Co.)

1. Lagunitas India Pale Ale

Though almost certainly not made with the "43 different hops and 65 various malts" the brewery claims, Lagunitas's flagship is still crazy after all these years: a hyper-bitter performance piece with tons of citrusy, piney aroma.

2. Lagunitas Sucks

It's beers such as Lagunitas Sucks — full name: Lagunitas Sucks (Brown Shugga' Substitute Ale) — that make people die-hard fans of the brewery. That is, it's difficult to pin down stylistically but an unforgettable experience to consume. Probably closest to a double (or imperial) IPA, it's more bitter than the regular IPA and nearly 8 percent ABV.

3. Lagunitas Pils

We've praised this before. It's got a heavier mouthfeel than the typical pilsner, and it's stronger, too: more than 6 percent ABV. Lagunitas Pils is the lager for ale drinkers who don't like lagers.

4. Lagunitas Brown Shugga

A temporary inability to fill demand for this late-year seasonal is what birthed Lagunitas Sucks (see above). The original is a caramel-cinnamon-apple-pie-fresh-molasses treat that bends toward the upper arc of strength: nearly 10 percent ABV. Still, with a bitterness not much more biting than Lagunitas IPA, it's deceptively drinkable—or, as the brewery puts it, "dangerously slammable."

5. Lagunitas Hop Stoopid

This grassy beer is for those who think American IPAs are much too mild. It is literally off the charts at 102 IBUs — aka international bitterness units, the 120-point scale often used to measure, well, bitterness in a beer. They say after 100, you smash Chuck Yeager–like through the limits of human bitterness perception. Have fun with it.

6. Lagunitas Day Time

It would stand to reason that Lagunitas's contribution to the lower-alcohol session-beer craze would taste nothing like 99.9 percent of the session beers out there. This "fractional IPA," as the brewery puts it, tastes surprisingly like the label's regular signature IPA. Very citrusy and hoppy, and yet only around 4.6 percent ABV. Perhaps that explains Lagunitas's food-pairing suggestions for Day Time: "breakfast, lunch."

Tom Acitelli is the author of  The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution. His new book, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is available for preorder.