In the growing world of beer connoisseurs, I myself have been taken up and occupied with the fad-like interest of sampling microbrews. When possible, I try to buy beer with which I’m unfamiliar, and during my long, arduous road trips, if I happen to pass by a brewery, I try to stop for a taste. Here are some conclusions I’ve drawn from my novice experiences with microbreweries:
– All beers of a certain type generally taste the same across the board. An IPA from Brew House 4 will taste like an IPA from Brew Pub 6. A pilsner from Bar 2 will taste like a pilsner from Bar 5. Etc. (unless you’re someone who can taste the oak cask lingering on the soft pallet and recognize the hops as being from the Pacific Northwest)
– Once in a while, a brewery will put forth something discernibly unique, even to the novice drinker. This is a rare and celebrated occurrence.
– Thus: the only thing that truly differentiates breweries to the non-discriminating boozer is image and attitude (aka: marketing), which can alter how one perceives a certain taste.
Without further ado: behold my “Six California Breweries of Attitude.”
Stone: No marketing technique pisses me off more than Stone, and they know it. That’s what they try to do: piss people off, and knowing they know what they’re doing just pisses me off more, because it works. Stone’s image parodies the classic West Coast Beer Snob, so of course, as if playing a game, beer snobs have to drink it in order to counter. They are probably most famous for their Arrogant Bastard Ale, which challenges the drinker’s pride by claiming (on the bottle): “You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth.” The nerve! So of course I had to get a bottle to prove my worth.
Stone’s marketing: 1. Dr Quack: 0.
I have to give them credit for being culturally and regionally relevant; being from San Diego county and being the flagship of the Southern California beer scene, they reflect the image of their customers: regionally egocentric Southern Californian yuppies who enjoy playing the self-aware game of sophistication. I’m not calling Southern Californians egocentric, by the way; I’m calling their projected image egocentric. There’s a difference. To the Southland intellectual, identity games are an aware pastime.
The Actual Beer: It’s pretty good, but I’ve never been wowed by it. Quality, yes, but I have yet to try something of theirs that made them stand apart in my head for something other than their marketing.
Strength of Image: A+ , very overt
Uniqueness of Image: B+ , snobbiness, while not often done, is a general hallmark of connoisseur products, although Stone makes it fresh by somehow being Ironic
Appeal of Image: B- , it teases us like a challenge, but now that I’ve tasted their beer, it just irritates me
Lagunitas: I see Lagunitas as the antithesis of Stone. While Stone’s image is pushing forward an antagonizing and mocking air of superiority, Lagunitas is a brewery that says, “We don’t give a shit. Whatever,” as if to echo Northern California ant-establishment counterculture. And the thing I like about Lagunitas is: this cavalier image actually does carry over into their beer production; every year, they push out new and weird experimental ales as if to say, “here, try this” and then after a season, it disappears. Their bottles often have intentionally misspelled words and poor grammar, or make some odd statement. Some of their peculiar beers include Undercover Investigation Shut-down Ale (whatever that means) recalling with disdain when the brewery was shut down by the police temporarily under suspicion of being a drug front.
Other beer names include Little Sumpin’ (evoking a folksy culture) and Wilco Tango Foxtrot: Jobless Recovery Ale (whatever that means) poking fun at the poor condition of the economy.
The Actual Beer: Lagunitas stands apart in taste because so often I can’t really figure out how to categorize a lot of their beers. Unlike Stone, which seems to categorize things conventionally as IPAs, Stouts, etc, Lagunitas often foregoes conventional beer styles (other than their standard brews: Dogtown Pale Ale, IPA, Double IPA, etc). That said, like Stone, the taste is nothing spectacular to me, although I do very much enjoy their Pale Ale.
Strength of Image: A+ , it encompasses every beer they make
Uniqueness of Image: A- , self-deprecating apathy is scarcely done
Appeal of Image: B , it doesn’t tease like Stone, but it has lasting power (also an adorable dog emblem)
Anderson Valley: As folksy as Lagunitas tries to be, no one pulls it off better than Anderson Valley, considering they actually come from a place so folksy, it actually has its own language. And the folks down at the brewery won’t let you forget it! Boontling words and phrases are found all over their beers, recalling a mythical time before cars and commutes unified remote rural regions with their surroundings. Rather than the egotistic Stone and the irreverent Lagunitas, Anderson Valley tries to lure you in with good natured country humility.
The Actual Beer: I really enjoy Anderson Valley, not because their beers are fantastic (although they are quite good), but because they’ve gone against the grain of West Coast brewing and instead of releasing editions upon editions of IPAs with varying degrees of bitterness, they actually have a well-balanced variety and spectrum of different beer types. That’s not to say Stone and Lagunitas only have IPAs, but really, the chances are if you grab a Stone or Lagunitas beer at random, it’ll probably be an IPA variant. Anderson Valley has an amber, an IPA, a Pale Ale, Belgians, and various seasonals that all pretty much fight for equal space at the grocery store.
Strength of Image: B , it’s not overwhelming, but it’s present
Uniqueness of Image: B – , a lot of microbrews like to play off the folksy, but only one has Boontling
Appeal of Image: A- , everyone wants to be a country bumpkin these days
Lost Coast: Lost Coast, in Eureka, derives its name from a stretch of the Northern California coast that probably the most isolated region in the entire state. They loose marketing points with me because the image of their beer has very little to do with the culture or isolation of their region, and yet it is a unique image worth noting. Rather than the previous three beers that have concrete obviously marketed attitudes, Lost Coast is more subtle in its approach to developing a unified character, so it’s harder to describe accurately, although I’d like to call it: Pleasantly Goofy.
Their bottle art is vaguely cubist, and evokes a feeling of casual comfort. It’s a simple way to say, “Hey, we’re from the northern reaches of the California coast… we’re free up here,” although something about that statement overestimates their projected image. Perhaps it’s because one of their most popular beers is called Downtown Brown, and there’s not really a “downtown” in Eureka. (although, I must mention their IPA is called Indica India Pale Ale, and if you know anything about Humboldt County…)
The Actual Beer: There’s nothing really special about the beer itself, in my opinion. In general, each type of beer tastes interchangeable with any other beer from its type. The beers are okay, but there’s nothing truly unique about them. Downtown Brown, however, is a pretty good brown ale.
Strength of Image: C , it really is just art on a bottle
Uniqueness of Image: B+ , it is, however, a pretty damn identifiable bottle
Appeal of Image: A – , when you think “microbrew,” you want to drink something happy, quirky, and subtly joyful
Mammoth: Jumping over the Sierra Nevada, there is a small brewery in Mammoth Lakes that is a microbrew in every sense of the word. Unlike the previous beers, which you can find in many states across the country, Mammoth beers are pretty much only sold within a 200 mile radius of Mammoth Lakes and only along US-395.
This feeds into their image. They are an isolated mountain brewery, and their beers reflect that with occasional regional relevance with names like IPA 395 and Devils Post Pale Ale. It’s a brewery for which, even in the summer, you feel like you have to put on a beanie and gloves to visit, but far from milking the adventure side of mountain-life, they decide to market their beer with the beauty of lakes, valleys, and national monuments. It’s a brewery that respects its surroundings.
The Actual Beer: Strangely, the beer itself also respects its surroundings. IPA 395, for instance, is a phenomenal and unique beer that incorporates mountain juniper and desert sage aroma into the brewing process. Somehow the scent of the hops is sustained without the unpleasant bitter aftertaste, and it makes for a somewhat unusual IPA. In general, it is a solid and unique brewery.
Strength of Image: A+ , it’s not in your face like Lagunitas or Stone, but it’s there, and regionally relevant
Uniqueness of Image: C , appreciating nature is nothing new to the beer scene
Appeal of Image: A- , everybody loves a mountain
Indian Wells: Traveling down the desert from Mammoth Lakes, you arrive at an arid and desolate place called Inyokern, where the Indian Wells Brewery seems randomly placed on a hill overlooking the vast nothing. As one might expect, their beer is marketed with an aura of desert isolation; their flagship beer, Mojave Red, has a vicious-looking rattlesnake gracing its label, as does their less-than-flagship beer, Mojave Gold (perhaps you’ve noticed a theme). They also have a Blackout Stout, I imagine so named because the residents of Inyokern black out every night after work, and a Lobotomy Bock, probably because you’d need a lobotomy to choose to live there.
The Actual Beer: Honestly, there is actually special about Indian Wells. Their beers are mostly mediocre. It’s fun to drink something with a rattlesnake on it, but when it comes down to it, if given a blind taste test I doubt Indian Wells would score very high.
Strength of Image: D , it really is just a couple rattlesnakes
Uniqueness of Image: A , there aren’t a lot of desert beers; they could really have something special here
Appeal of Image: B- , although desert doesn’t really bode well for a refreshing beer, especially a desert known for poverty and meth
To Summarize: If you didn’t bother to read my unnecessarily lengthy post, allow me to just say this: when it comes down to it, all microbreweries seem pretty much the same. The only true tangible difference is image, and there are various degrees of aggression to how strongly these images are pursued. Stone and Lagunitas do the best job of projecting a strong image, and that’s probably why they seem to have the most widespread sales. Lost Coast and Indian Wells have weakly asserted images even though they have at their disposal a clear cut regional gimmick, and their markets seem restricted to the West Coast.
So lastly, drink…
…Stone, if you’re a pretentious egoist.
…Lagunitas, if you’re an apathetic outcast.
…Anderson Valley, if you’re good-natured folk.
…Lost Coast, if you’re carefree and silly.
…Mammoth, if you’re an outdoorsman.
…Indian Wells, if you’re an alienated tweeker.