LEAVE IT TO the scallywags at Lagunitas to wait until their 13th anniversary to brew a birthday beer—and then keep releasing it year after year. Itself now approaching a decade on the shelves, Lucky 13 is a ‘mondo’-sized ale, a deep amber tinged with auburn, with great gobs of creamy foam comprising its rich head. The lacing is almost too hefty for such a delicate word, leaving behind solid blocks of fine bubbles from top to bottom. Highest marks for presentation. Lagunitas complements this presentation with a reflective paragraph on the label, recognizing their longevity and waxing influence in the West Coast craft beer while still deferring to their elders at Sierra Nevada, Anchor, and Rogue (all implicitly but none too subtly).
These are deserving names, and Lagunitas’s not least among them if Lucky 13 is any benchmark. Indeed, from a brewery best known for unabashedly big flavors—and most of them bitter—Lucky 13 is a marvelous change of pace. Though its numbers aren’t shy (8.65% ABV and nearly 80 IBU), Lucky 13 is deliciously malty up front and dangerously smooth in the back, rich in complex sweetness without stooping to sugary adjuncts. In short: get behind me, Sweet Stouts. You are a hindrance to malt’s unadulterated depths.
The pour unleashes some tracers of piney hop oils from the usual West Coast C-strains, but also subtler fruity types (perhaps Amarillo) that help segue smoothly into the beer’s main act: a complex malt-fest. The opening salvo is of heavily caramelized crystal, smoothed to a nearly milk chocolate texture and followed by a little phenol on the lips. The midsection has a satisfying blend of nuttiness, medium toast, some undertones of earthy fruits like fig, and biscuit—an ale-style upgrade to the dextrinous bulk of German Märzen or Alt. Being Lagunitas, though, there are still plenty of hops to help keep things in check and retain a crisp counterpoint, making sure that Lucky 13 a hearty beer without becoming a sweet seasonal sipper. They begin to reassert themselves in the midsection and gain momentum into the medium finish, where the fine and persistent carbonation also ensures no mouth-coating residue. In this neutral space a nice bit of roast comes through in the briefest of encores, and then show starts all over again.
While it may be a full eight years since Lagunitas actually turned 13 and birthed this brew, the fruits of that anniversary are worth repeating time and again. Lucky 13 is one of the finest American red/amber ales on the market today—and one of its best values.
Served: 22 oz bottled May 3, 2013