LAGUNITAS IS GOOD at getting things wrong. Back in 1997 the brewers were attempting a batch of Gnarlywine when they realized their wort was far below its target gravity. On the instruction of founder Tony Magee they raided local grocery stores for every ounce of sugar available and tossed it into the fermenter, hoping to boost the final ABV to a level more apropos of the style. The beer that emerged was indeed strong, but its relatively light body was inappropriate for the target recipe and style. Fortunately, the brewers recognized their inadvertent discovery as a recipe worth repeating and dubbed it Brown Shugga’ in honor of the not-so-secret ingredient. In the ensuing years it returned as a winter seasonal and today is considered one of Lagunitas’ signature brews.
Of course, Belgians had been adding sugar to their recipes for generations before Lagunitas, so the idea was hardly new. But the technique wasn’t too popular in the States at the time and Brown Shugga’ has amassed a devoted fanbase while standing out amidst Lagunitas’ broadly Reinheitsgebot-compliant lineup.
The beer pours with a large plume of a slightly yellowed head with excellent lacing, though it subsides to a shadow of its initial glory in fairly short order. Its color is an enticingly bright copper with plenty of residual yeast visible in the otherwise clear body.
West Coast breweries often favor clean fermentations that leave little yeast signature, but several Lagunitas beers share a house character. For example, although appreciably different than A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, Brown Shugga’s aroma has comparably cake-like yeast notes. (The two also share some wheat in the grist.) Actual brown sugar is not as large a component of the fermentables as one might guess—most of the sweetness comes from several kinds of caramel malts that make up nearly 10% of the grain bill. And they come through prominently, supported by citrus and pine with some slight booze fume. At warmer temperatures there’s also some hazelnut and a bit of diacetyl, the latter having survived the warm rest that occurs near the end of fermentation.
Shugga’s flavors follow suit, opening with lightly kilned but densely saturated malts. A little citric pith spikes up for relief later on, but the combined influence of brown sugar and piney hops leaves a maple syrup impression too sticky to dispel. The relatively mild Willamette hop was used as the primary bittering addition, with a large dose of hop extract helping elevate the final IBU to around 51. Thus Brown Shugga’ has an almost syrupy quality to its hoppiness, more liquid and mouth-coating than leafy, lively, or prickly. (Hop Stoopid is another beer with hop extract, which in high IBU-recipes are used to control vegetal off-flavors as well as to save space/money in the brewing process.)
Bitterness is clearly present in this beer, but it is synchronized with the malts in a single wave of flavors instead of separate tides. Relatively low effervescence also refrains from riling up more bitterness in the finish. The body is full as befits a ‘failed’ barleywine, but the use of sugar to boost the ABV means that the final gravity is not especially elevated: at around 5-6 Plato, it’s sticky and round instead of genuinely chewy.
Minerality is slightly pronounced, subtly providing some framework for the gooey malt center as well as aiding in healthy fermentation. Confronting a 1.110 OG and fermenting to nearly 10% ABV, the yeast could certainly use the backup. Alcohol slickness in the finish clears out a bit of the toast and the bitterness that peaks around the midpalate.
Shugga’ is a rather well-apportioned beer, despite its strength and slipshod origins: commendations are due to Lagunitas for recognizing the virtues of an accident. Appropriately, the fates paid them back in a few years when Brown Shugga’ was the cause of another successful failure—Lagunitas Sucks. But that’s a different story.
Served: 12 oz bottled 10/17/13)
Note: All recipe facts and figures drawn from an interview with Lagunitas brewmaster Jeremy Marshall conducted by CanYouBrewIt.